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The Naismith Trophy

Infographic of the Naismith Trophy

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When it comes to international basketball, the Summer Olympics is considered by casual observers to award the grand prize, but those who follow the sport closely understand the major event is actually the FIBA World Cup.  Like its standalone cousins with soccer and rugby, this is the showcase for national team-level hoops, making the Naismith Trophy a sought-after prize for professionals from all over the world.  Over the course of nearly 50 years in existence, the trophy has been contested for on four continents – only Africa and Australia have yet to play host.

History

The first FIBA international tournament was held in 1950 in Argentina, bringing together teams from all over the world without a true prize to compete for.  Though many discussed the possibility of awarding a trophy named after James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, to the winning squad, the organization was unable to afford the cost of commissioning a design and having it manufactured.  It wasn’t until 1965, when a $1,000 donation arrived at FIBA headquarters, that the initial Naismith Trophy could be made.  At the 1967 tournament in Uruguay, the Soviet Union defeated Yugoslavia to claim it.

Much like soccer’s major competition, the winners were allowed to hold on to the trophy in the years between events, when the prize would be presented to the next champion.  Two decades later, FIBA decided to update the design and charged Gunter Shoebel with building a new Naismith Trophy from scratch.  His work, an ode to the world travels of then-FIBA Secretary General Renato William Jones, hints at the Ancient Egyptians – the lotus on the cup, in particular, is drawn from carvings at the Temples of Karnak.  Below it, a decagonal piece rotates freely, with five stones to represent the regions of the world alternating with five continental maps.

The most unique feature of this cup, apart from its heavy marble base, is the inscription of “Naismith” on all four sides – in four different languages.  Engraved in Latin, Arabic, Chinese and Egyptian hieroglyphics, the unique flavor of this truly worldwide competition is embodied by the prize itself.

Best Teams

Soviet Union (1967-1978)

The first team to take home the Naismith Trophy, the USSR dominated much of the first decade after the prize debuted.  Coming off the controversial upset of the United States at the 1972 Olympics, this experienced squad from the eastern side of the Iron Curtain claimed the trophy with a tight victory over its nemesis Yugoslavia.  Known for disciplined defending and efficient offensive execution, the Russians would go on to finish in the top two of all but one tournament well from the first time the trophy was handed out until the mid-1990s.

Yugoslavia (1967-1978)

Few people realize how popular the sport of basketball is in the Baltic region, but you would have seen plenty of good action between this squad and the USSR during the period.  In fact, Yugoslavia finished in the top two in every tournament over the course of the period, a feat the Russians cannot claim.  (The round-robin style of the championship round is decided by the best record.  A knockout round wasn’t instituted until 1986.)  Playing with a similarly-drilled style to their Eastern Bloc counterparts, the Yugoslavians often ground out results by the slimmest of margins thanks to solid fundamentals in every area.

United States (1994)

The Dream Team electrified crowds with dominant performances at the Barcelona Olympics and this second edition of NBA stars taking on the best the world had to offer was no different.  As only the second time American professionals had graced the international stage, it was another four years before the world could catch up – the US scored 120 points per game and won by almost 37 points, on average.  With Shaquille O’Neal playing center and sharpshooters like Dan Majerle and Mark Price on the wings, the scoreboards had trouble keeping up.  As the competition has improved drastically since 1992, the Naismith Trophy will likely never be handed to such a singularly overpowering team ever again.

Winners

Yugoslavia (5; 1970, 1978, 1990, 1998, 2002)

United States (3; 1986, 1994, 2010)

Soviet Union (3; 1967, 1974, 1982)

Spain (1; 2006)