Dribbling in front of minarets and the Cappadocia moonscape, Kobe Bryant seems to be everywhere in Turkey, on posters at least.
In real life, he's skipping the world basketball championship Aug. 28 to Sept. 12 along with LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki and Canada's Steve Nash, all of whom say they need rest ahead of the NBA grind.
With almost every contender missing NBA players, underdogs such as Canada have better chances of winning games in the scorching cities of the Turkish summer.
The United States, with only coach Mike Krzyzewski returning from the 2008 Olympic championship team, has a young team and is seeking the cohesion and long-range accuracy it lacked at the last world championship, in Japan in 2006. The U.S. will look to force turnovers off presses and to take advantage of a small, fast team led by NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant. They could struggle to defend the bigger front-men of Argentina, Spain and Greece, who will try to take advantage of FIBA-style play that emphasizes half-court strategies, three-point shooting and chippy play with soccer-style flopping.
The Greeks return with most of the core group that riddled the U.S. in 2006 with pick-and-rolls and 65-per-cent shooting. Many of Greece's rabid fans want to avenge a loss to Spain in the 2006 final. When he's healthy, the wide body of Sofoklis (Baby Shaq) Schortsanitis can set jumbo screens and dominate the paint on both ends. But Greece is notoriously inconsistent, and its streak shooters can go flat in a hurry.
Even without Gasol and injured Toronto Raptors point guard Jose Calderon, the players on defending champion Spain still play like schoolyard buddies who share meals and travel with wives and family. The Spaniards say they are confident they can beat the U.S. despite losses in Beijing and a tight game last week in Madrid. Former Raptor Jorge Garbajosa personifies a deep and dynamic squad that excels in transition off assists from baby-faced wizard Ricky Rubio. But without Calderon protecting the ball, Spain could struggle with the full-court presses and half-court traps that bedevilled it in the Beijing final. Though Gasol will be missed, Spain won the 2006 final without him.
Without Tony Parker and other NBA starters, France is in a second tier of contenders, along with Lithuania, Russia, Croatia and a German side looking to a future beyond Nowitzki.
Turkey could benefit from the same kind of national support that propelled Canadian athletes during the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. Playing at home, former Raptor Hedo Turkoglu looks to regain the face he lost in Canada after he called in sick and then was spotted in a club. "Turks believe this could be our year to win," says Mustafa Kabalci, a hotel manager in Goreme who spent six years in New Brunswick. "If we win early, the whole nation will get behind them."
Missing national hero Manu Ginobili and now Andres Nocioni, who sprained an ankle this week, Argentina still has the inside muscle of Fabricio Oberto and Luis Scola, MVP of the FIBA Americas last year, on a veteran team aiming to regain the glory of their 2004 Olympic gold in Athens. Carlos Delfino will take on more of a go-to role than he ever had as a Raptor.
Brazil, with speedster Leandro Barbosa bound for Toronto this season, will really have to play fast in Turkey after injuries to big men Nene and Anderson Varejao.
Leo Rautins, head coach of Canada, has tried to build a scrappy team to suit the rigours of Balkan basketball, but injuries have damaged the team's chances in Turkey. As both father and coach, Rautins will likely preserve his son Andy, who has an ailing knee, for his upcoming first NBA season with the New York Knicks. Yet Canada relishes the underdog role, and at least has an easy draw, with matches against Lebanon, Lithuania, France and New Zealand before a game with Spain, which will likely rest players for the next round. Given past underachievement, Canada could claim success by reaching the second round and building momentum for London 2012.