By Paul Nilsen
Ever wondered what happens when the forces of mainstream basketball and streetball combine? Keep your head turned in the direction of Romania and it might not be long before you find out the answer - for both could be about to truly ignite basketball in Bucharest and beyond.
In a little over two decades since the revolution of 1989, the Romanian Basketball Federation has continued working hard to build a basketball infrastructure despite having restricted resources. As you might expect, there have been significant challenges, (some of which still exist) but also enough successes to feel confident the sport will continue to grow thanks to the thriving interest of a new generation of ballers.
Romanian Basketball is currently placing a big emphasis on helping young people, supporting communities and ensuring development of the game according to Federation representative Tiberiu Rist.
|Even national team stars like Virgil Stanescu are getting in on the streetball craze.|
"In the next five years, the FRB will apply even more development programmes, especially for the children and the juniors. We have made more competitions from ‘mini-basket' to the U20 level and the number of legitimate athletes taking part has nearly doubled already!"
"In addition, some of the projects already initiated by the Romanian Basketball Federation with our own financial income include, ‘Basketball in kindergartens' to increase healthy living, ‘Education through Sport' for all children, ‘Basketball among the blocks' with the installation of over 10,000 panels of basketballs in different neighbourhoods in different cities across the country, ‘Basketball High School Cup' a tournament held at high schools and. ‘University Education through Sport' which is for all students at this level.
"Last but not least, the FRB has also started a social campaign simply called ‘Give' - where all the players and coaches donate toys to the sick children's or to children without families."
Alongside these formal efforts of the Federation, the enthusiasm of young people for basketball is also being whipped up by a rapidly expanding streetball scene. In fact, Romania appears to now have an insatiable appetite for it and is beginning to emerge as one of the most popular and exciting places on the circuit.
According to leading basketball journalist Adrian Popa, both the work of the Federation and those driving the current streetball craze are helping to raise the profile of basketball and its popularity among young Romanians.
He claimed "The Romanian Basketball Federation has a focus on developing the next generation of basketball players. There are a lot of programmes for young people starting from kindergarten to high school."
"As a general point of view the Federation is focusing on the future of basketball, mainly because there was a big gap, caused by the transition from the communist system, between generations."
"For example, the most valuable Romanian players right now are around 32-33 years old and the next generation of very good players, some of them playing in USA colleges, are 20-21. So the Federation is trying to build on these young players."
"Basketball is also gaining a lot of attention from youngsters and especially because of the streetball phenomenon. There are a lot of 3-on-3 competitions around the country and in Bucharest there is one of the biggest streetball tournaments within Eastern Europe - the Sport Arena Streetball. Last year they organized an unofficial ‘European Slam Dunk Championship' with some of the best dunkers from Europe."
George Bucur one of the organizers of the event http://www.3on3.ro/ has watched it mushroom in size and profile since it was first launched and believes basketball is having a profound effect on those being drawn to the sport in whatever format.
"This is the sixth year of Sport Arena Streetball. It started as a friendly action, and it grew so much year after year, that it's hard even for us, the organizers, to keep up with the event. You can say that we unleashed a monster. Street basketball, that's the monster I am talking about and our event proves how much potential this sport has - because it's not about the sport only, it's about a state of mind. It's about friends playing together years after they finished high school, it's about pick-up games till late at night, it's about summer, blue sky and music."
He added "Sport Arena Streetball gathers for each event over 1000 players and we can do that because we gave to everybody the opportunity to play. Every single player can have here his five minutes of glory, you're not just a fan somewhere in the crowd, you can cross the line at any time and step on court. And the result proves that people needed that."
"Basketball might be an indoor sport, but for most of us it started in the schoolyard or in the park. We are very glad that FIBA Europe decided to take a closer look at what we are doing, and we hope we will be able to do better things with their support. Every year it is a struggle to find the money for the five stages of the tournament, and this year was the hardest of all. Probably that's why it will be the best year."
In fact, it's not just the younger generation who are going crazy for basketball right now in Romania - even National Team stars are being re-energised by their love for streetball and in many cases, basketball is becoming an obsession.
"We all realised we cannot live without it." explained Bucur.
"We have people planning their holiday to fit our schedule, we have whole families playing in different age categories, we have seen kids growing up on our courts, weddings happening on our courts, foreign guests (from France, Serbia, Greece, USA) returning every year."
"Virgil Stanescu, the former captain of the Romanian national team, said last year in an interview: ‘I have trained hard for a whole year in Russia (he played for Samara at the time), in order to be in good shape for Sport Arena Streetball'. It is also important to say that this event came so far because of Vlad Constantinescu and Radu Petre, the two managers of Sport Arena, who will probably lead their company to bankruptcy because they just care too much about basketball."
Despite the explosion of streetball and the hard work of the Federation, basketball has frustratingly still not managed to persuade the mainstream media in any convincing way to extend its coverage according to Popa.
"Football is still ‘The Sport' in Romania! Besides Romanian success stories in some Olympic sports like gymnastics, rowing, sometimes track and field or tennis, but only when some important competition is going on, all you can read in sports newspapers or sport sections or you can see in sports TV News is football."
"Although some of the biggest basketball leagues are broadcast in Romania by sports channels (NBA, Euroleague and ACB) and the Romanian Division A is on national television, the television ratings for basketball are very low, compared to football."
"You can read very little about basketball in the sports newspapers or sports sections of the general newspapers and only about the finals, there are some scandals, or some big star is coming to Romania, as it was the case this year with Tina Thompson, or when Rashard Griffith (former Euroleague winner in 2001 with Bologna) came to play here."
The dominance of football is also making it hard for the professional league in Romania to shine and yet it is not as if there are teams without any kind of pedigree. Asesoft Ploiesti for example are a former EuroChallenge winner who enjoyed a season in the ULEB Cup and have just completed a seventh championship.
Perhaps one of the issues behind the reluctance of the media to fully embrace the sport despite the growing popularity among young people could be down to a sea-change in the traditional basketball powerbase. The recent pattern weaves away from the Capital city in recent times - something Popa was quick to highlight.
"Generally speaking, there is a curiosity. Even if Bucharest is the most powerful city financially speaking, basketball is not drawing so much attention here from sponsors. Former glory teams from the communist era such as Steaua and Dinamo, both from Bucharest, have endured very difficult times."
"Dinamo have just been relegated for the first time to the Second Division, after more than 50 years in Division A while Steaua was only brought to life last season, after spending seven years in the second division."
"These two teams have won together 43 titles (Dinamo 22, Steaua 21), but only Dinamo managed to win a title after 1989, two of them, last one in 2003."
Even if the capital based media have been slow in recognising and reporting on the strides being made elsewhere, it hasn't deterred the Federation and the Romanian League from continuing to make improvements. Popa praised the decision to reduce import levels as an incentive for young Romanian players and also the efforts of the Federation to build and contribute to a better infrastructure of sport across the country.
"In Division A, a team is allowed to have only five foreigners in the roster, and during the game has to have one Romanian player on the court, all the time. This system was implemented two seasons ago, in order to help young Romanian talents to gain more minutes on the court and to encourage young basketball players to follow a professional career. Before there was a limit of 7 foreigners, and sometimes there were teams who were playing all the 40 minutes only with them."
"Meanwhile the Federation are also involved in some programes regarding the infrastructure for basketball, which, like in other sports, it is a big problem in Romania. For example we don't have a hall bigger than 3500 seats for basketball, or for other sports."
"The only arena bigger than this (6000 seats) is in Bucharest but is almost 40 years old, and hosted only some big events like the Harlem Globetrotters tour. Recently this arena hosted the final of Champions League in women handball, but it is in very poor shape, and it is very, very far from being a state-of-the-art venue for sports events."
"The Federation has also installed basketball boards, and courts on playgrounds in a big programme with the support from local authorities."
In part two, we talk to American NCAA graduate Vlad Moldoveanu as he leads the battle for his country in the race for promotion to Division A, while we also look at how it is the women who are winning the battle of the sexes in Romania!