Few days off in African hoops

IMG_3386Uganda’s Stephen Omony tries driving past Angola’s Yanick Moreira. (Ken Maguire photo)

NBA teams complain about playing games on consecutive nights. But for some perspective, look at the schedules of international tournaments, particularly those in Africa.

Angola once played nine games in 11 days. Seven other teams had the same schedule. That was during the 2009 African championship, called AfroBasket. Angola went undefeated and won the tournament, which was hosted by Libya. Games were played in Benghazi and Tripoli.

By comparison, Tunisia played on three consecutive days only twice this year. Tunisia beat Nigeria 77-65 in the AfroBasket final Sept. 16. Here’s the game story I wrote for the Associated Press.

Tunisia’s coach, Mario Palma, said the Nigerians were tired. Ike Diogu, for example, played the entire 40 minutes the night before in a semifinal win over Senegal. Diogu still finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

The top teams in the women’s AfroBasket play eight games in 10 days. The exception is when the hosting nation’s team plays a day early to open the tournament. The eight-in-10 schedule has been in place since 2007.

There’s plenty of research supporting the belief that fatigue diminishes performance and increases the risk of injury.

Disorganization is the main problem. Congo-Brazzaville planned to host, but backed out. Angolan basketball officials offered to host, but the government nixed it because it was too close to elections. So Senegal and Tunisia co-hosted and it was delayed by three weeks, which compressed the schedule.

In the end, players pay the price. It’s the hot season in Senegal and Dakar’s arena has no air conditioning. I watched several players, particularly the big guys, retreat to the large fans placed behind the team benches. Chris Gabriel, a 6-foot-10, 275-pound center for South Africa, was among those struggling. A’Darius Pegues, an American and naturalized Ugandan, told me he was dehydrated after his first game.

In 2009, Nigeria was the original host for the men’s tourney but failed to comply with FIBA regulations, so Libya was selected.

Clearly, good organizing is the key. In the 2013 and 2015 tournaments, teams played on back-to-back days just once.

In the 2001 tournament, Angola’s path to the championship required seven games in eight days. In 1999, six teams played games on five consecutive days.

European national teams have it better, although it’s still tough. The European tournament, which like its African counterpart is organized by FIBA, typically packs a lot of games into the first round, and then provides days off in the knockout stage.

Spain played five games in six days during its championship run in 2015. But in the knockout stage, Spain had at least one day off between games. France had a similar experience in 2013.

It was better this year. Slovenia won by beating Serbia 93-85 in the final Sept. 17. In the first round, Slovenia played on back-to-back days twice in Finland. Then, there were two days off, which included traveling to Istanbul. Next was the quarterfinal, then a day off, then the semifinal, followed by two days off.

The USA played five games in seven days en route to the Americup title. It beat Argentina in the Sept. 3 final. Australia played back-to-back just once in the Asia Cup, which it won Aug. 20.

For its 2017-18 schedule, the NBA reduced the number of back-to-back games, in response to complaints by players and coaches. Former NBA great Charles Barkley reacted strongly, saying today’s players need to toughen up.