MANILA, Philippines — Serbia has a chance for its biggest win in 21 years. Canada is seeking its first medal at a major global tournament in 87 years. Germany is one win away from its biggest basketball accomplishment, ever.
And then there’s the U.S., playing for bronze.
The Basketball World Cup — a 32-team odyssey that played out in three countries over the last 2½ weeks — ends in Manila on Sunday with the medal games. It’s an all-European final with Germany (7-0) facing Serbia (6-1) for gold, and an all-North American matchup with Canada (5-2) playing the U.S. (5-2) for the bronze.
“The world is good at basketball,” U.S. point guard and captain Jalen Brunson said Saturday at the team’s final practice of the summer. “Respect everybody.”
Germany and Serbia have certainly earned tons of respect and will be on the medal podium together just as they were at the 2002 world championships; Serbia won its most recent world title in that event (as the former Yugoslavia) while Germany got what, until now, was its first and only World Cup or Olympics medal — a bronze.
Germany reached the final by topping the U.S. 113-111 in the semifinals. Serbia beat Canada 95-86 in the other semifinal.
“From the first day we got together this summer, we believed that we’re a special group and we can win against any team,” German forward Franz Wagner said.
Serbian coach Svetislav Pesic was the gold-medal-winning coach in that 2002 tournament. Now 74, he has a chance to win the World Cup again 21 years later.
“I don’t want to say it, but he’s toward the end of his career,” Serbian forward Filip Petrusev said. “He accepted the job to try to bring a medal back, so I think it means the world to him, means the world to us, everybody really back home.”
There were 26 NBA players in the World Cup semifinals, 19 of them playing on the U.S. or Canadian rosters — and at least seven of those 19 guys won’t be going home with a medal. Germany has four NBA players, Serbia three.
“Part of competition is you’re not going to win every time,” U.S. coach Steve Kerr said. “You’re going to compete, do everything you can to win, but part of competition is accepting the fact that there’s going to be some heartbreak.”
There’s going to be more on Sunday for either the U.S. or Canada.
The rivalry between neighbor nations officially goes back 87 years — they played in the final of the 1936 Olympic tournament, the U.S. winning 19-8 in a game played outdoors, in a rainstorm, on a clay court that was a muddy, sloppy mess. In senior men’s competitions, the U.S. is 21-1 against Canada; the loss was in the preliminary round of the 2005 FIBA Americas championship.
“What we need to do now is bounce back and be excited for this next game,” Canada coach Jordi Fernandez said after his team fell in the semifinals, before knowing the Americans would be the opponent to decide bronze. “Me personally? I’m already excited. ... We’re going to bounce back.”
The Americans were saying all the right things Saturday on the bounce-back front.
The mood was not festive, though wasn’t exactly funereal either. Kerr shot a few free throws before the team arrived. Assistant coach Erik Spoelstra was smiling and chatting with Anthony Edwards. Assistant coach Tyronn Lue was doing the same with Brunson.
“It’s another opportunity to play the game we love,” U.S. forward Bobby Portis said. “At the end of the day, the dominoes fell how they fell. We didn’t reach the goal that we came here to achieve, but it’ll make us stronger. We’re still fighting for something.”
That something is bronze, and it is the best-case scenario right now. Portis spent a long time talking with his Milwaukee teammate Khris Middleton after Friday’s loss; Middleton pointed out the silver (or in this case, bronze) lining of how at least Portis and this World Cup team still has a chance to play for a medal. Middleton was on the 2019 U.S. World Cup team that found itself playing for seventh place in Beijing.
And the Americans fully expect that this game will be a big deal for Canada, which hasn’t medaled on a basketball stage this big since that slopfest on the clay court 87 years ago. Both the U.S. and Canada — as well as Serbia and Germany — have already qualified for the Paris Olympics, so the nations could be facing off again next year in France as well.
“The United States and Canada, I think both of our countries will expect to see each other for the coming years,” U.S. guard Tyrese Haliburton said. “Seems like this is kind of the start of something that’s going to go on for a while.”