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Novi Sad Al-Wahda among most dominant basketball teams in history
MIES (FIBA 3x3 World Tour 2018) - An unstoppable force ploughed through the FIBA 3x3 World Tour 2018 in October as Novi Sad Al-Wahda provided the international basketball scene with a display of sheer mastery. Beijing played host to the final of the streetball-inspired competition on October 28 and the Serbian outfit won their third title in the Chinese Capital. They also stamped themselves into the history books with an unprecedented 32-0 season record. This is an incredible achievement in an unpredictable, 10-minute or first-to-21 game where 25 percent of the games are decided by just 2 points or less.
Since 3x3's entry into the international competition calendar in 2010, it has become a highly competitive sport unto itself. Following the rapid development of the World Tour and FIBA 3x3 World & Continental Cups, the format will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo 2020. The world is beginning to take notice and as of now, the Serbians are a picture of dominance.
The team is made up of 3x3 superstar Dusan Bulut, 28-year-old Tamas Ivosev, Marko Savic and sharpshooter Dejan Majstorovic. The team operates with a sophisticated offense that relies on flawless ball movement. With just a 12-second shot-clock it can be surprising at first to witness for those used to the one-on-one isolation plays you'd see on your local playground. On defense, the squad becomes an aggressive switching armada. A versatile playing style and approach too. They tour the world, picking up prize money and enhancing their reputation, competition by competition. This is a full-time lifestyle.
As anyone that has played any kind of recreational basketball will know, there are those that like to play stringently structured basketball and there are devoted street-ballers. In some circles, street-ballers are frowned upon, but not in competitions such as FIBA's 3x3 where the free-flowing adaptability and creativity comes in handy. Playing style has been crucial in shaping the career of Bulut, who is ranked #1 in the men's individual 3x3 rankings and is intensely focused on dominating his opponents.
"I always loved to play streetball more than regular basketball," Bulut told FIBA.basketball. "So, now that I have the opportunity to live from it, my goal is for us to be the best and most dominant team that you are able to see and with no losses this year on the tour or national competition, I consider my performance a complete display of dominance. I like to win and hate to lose, so every win completes a little goal that goes toward a big one, which is to be the best."
Bulut's ruthless desire to dominate those in front of him is a much-lauded attribute of top athletes. We celebrate a willingness to step on and often crush those that stand in the way of these competitors, while we’d find it abhorrent in most other vocational, social or indeed political environments. Some call it competitive spirit, others see it as an unhealthy obsession. Regardless of how you view the mind-set, the thirst to destroy the competition is what is often thought to tie the greatest players in basketball history together. So, when a collective of like-minded athletes come together to achieve excellence, the sporting world stands to attention.
32-0 - a flawless season from Novi Sad Al-Wahda leads to the inevitable debate of just who are the most dominant basketball teams in the history of the sport?
*The following groups have been chosen as single-era teams, not taking into consideration previous stints of success and excluding unfinished periods of brilliance - sorry Golden State. It is also not in any way an attempt to rank all-time basketball teams, but rather to acknowledge a few that have had a major impact on the game.
USA Basketball - International Men 1992
Before falling to a shock defeat to Argentina's 'Golden Generation' in 2004, Team USA enjoyed an unwavering monopoly over men’s international basketball. The era was kick-started by an outfit most commonly known as the Dream Team - the Chuck Daly-coached assembly of Hall of Fame talent that owned the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona. USA Basketball won three Olympics in a row, as well as the 1994 FIBA Basketball World Cup. But as any basketball fan worth their salt will know; the 1992 squad is THE team.
Often described as the ‘greatest sports team ever assembled’, the Dream Team obliterated their helpless opposition with no real challenge, while riding a wave of popularity sparked by Michael Jordan, who happened to be in the middle of earning his first NBA three-peat. They played six games and won them all with complete ease. They finished with a +350 point differential from the tournament, their closest games was against Croatia in the gold medal game – they won that by 32. Human cannonball and USA leading scorer Charles Barkley warned the Angola team that they were ‘in trouble’ before their fixture, yet despite fair warning they turned up and were still beaten by 68 points just for the fun of it.
Best-selling author Roland Lazenby literally wrote the book on Jordan and he fully believes it was a moment not to be repeated, even for the mighty USA. He feels as though the game has morphed into a different product, less dependent on sheer force and athletic ability.
"I don't think the US will ever dominate international basketball as it did with that first Dream Team," he told FIBA.basketball."The game has changed so much. It's no longer the physical battle it once was. Play at every level still has its moments, but basketball is conducted more like an All Star game now, with defenses restrained to allow for showboating offensive performances. It will never go back to the old game, because the NBA is making so much money and getting so much attention with a game now juiced for offense."
Inescapable drama came along with the media frenzy, involving the selection of Duke's Christian Laettner over Shaquille O'Neal and the controversial omission of Isiah Thomas. Despite missing the aforementioned NBA legends, almost every position was filled with Hall of Fame calibre talent. From Larry Bird to Magic Johnson, Scottie Pippen to Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing to Clyde Drexler; the team was athletic, skilled and downright terrifying. The coaching staff’s main challenge was choosing between various basketball juggernauts and tempering the fiery practice scrimmages, which became a highly-competitive proving ground for the ego-heavy roster, looking to mark their territory and prove their supremacy.
"Hate to say it, but the games almost seemed secondary," Lazenby recalled. "They seemed more interested in engaging each other, both on and off the floor. What does it say when a team's biggest battles came in their own practices?"
Lazenby believes that a certain basketball deity played like he had a serious point to prove during the tournament and that the team’s tour de force meant the world to him.
"Oh, I think Magic had his own sort of dominance in mind. It's just that he was at the end of his career and hampered by the calamity of his HIV status. In many ways, those games meant far more to Magic than anyone else.”
The players' off-court stories are notorious, with a wildly-dressed Barkley roaming La Rambla like a hench pied piper, followed by feverish crowds and then legendary point guard John Stockton sightseeing with family without much public attention at all. On court however, the team will always be remembered for how unbeatable they were and at this point, even the suggestion that any team could rival them is considered blasphemous.
The Dream Team's run raised the profile of basketball worldwide and many attribute the influx of international talent in the modern NBA to the worldwide exposure to the game provided by the Olympics.
Los Angeles Sparks - WNBA 2001-2003
You would be forgiven for flinching at my selection here, as the Houston Comets took home the first four WNBA championships immediately after the league's formation and the Minnesota Lynx have won just as many since. Hear me out though; the league was still finding it’s feet during the Comets dynasty. The Michael Cooper-led Sparks usurped the all-powerful Houston team, won two championships in a row and attempted a three-peat when more league-wide parity existed in the early 00’s. In the regular season, they were especially commanding, winning 77 games and losing just 21 over the three-year period.
"Yeah, we dominated at that time for sure," Sparks General Manager Penny Toler told told FIBA.basketball. "It's very rare that a team will get a shot at three championships in a row and it’s really tough to get there."
The team's run happened simultaneously alongside another historic run of greatness from their male neighbors. While star players Lisa Leslie, Mwadi Mabika and Tamecka Dixon were ruling one league, Bryant and O’Neal were working on their own three-peat in the same building.
"You know what made our run even more special?" Toler asked rhetorically. "We're the only women and men's team to both win a championship at the same time. When the WNBA started, to have a team, you had to be linked with a men's team. So, we're the only franchise to have won two when the Lakers won two. Unfortunately, we lost when they got the third but no other franchise can say that and that made it extra special."
While Toler feels as though the Sparks enjoyed a legitimate run of supremacy, they didn't quite aim to embarrass the opposition, that just happened as a by-product of their excellence.
"It's not necessarily trying to dominate people, it's about always trying to be your best. When you have a good team, you have to try and capitalize on it.
"Even when we have a good year, sometimes people see it as a bad year because the expectation is that the Sparks should always be good. Sure, we dominated but the goal was to win a championship; we can now look back on it and call it dominance. Ultimately, we were expected to win and we did it."
As coverage of the WNBA increases, so does the reputation of the stars and winning teams. However, one of the reasons their run meant so much at the time was the media storm it created in the city.
"At the time, the media coverage was there," Toler remembered. "Of course, it was the first time that the Comets were beaten when we won. They were the only team to win a championship for the first four years, so it was huge news when we broke through that barrier.
"After we won, the ratings were higher than ever, we were the first team to have a big TV deal and I think we were the first team to have a jersey deal, but I'll have to look back on that. The media coverage had something to do with the movement, as it was a growing sport.
"One day, we'll get to that point. I might be an old lady but I know I'll see the female sports on the front of the sports pages like I do the male sports."
Crucially, the wave of attention and on-court excellence broke down walls for the league as whole. Similarly to the Comets initial superiority, without the Sparks’ early success the WNBA may not have become what it is today.
"Our TV ratings went through the roof. When L.A. come to town, if teams are welcoming us into the arena, they’re getting a lot of money," she declared confidently.
"If teams get 9000 people to attend the game, they’re getting 18,000 when the Sparks are in the house and that’s with or without the title. When L.A. comes to town, you sell tickets. What other team has their own chant - 'BEAT LA! BEAT LA!'
"Back then, when we would play Sacramento, it was funny, because we were beating Sacramento at the time and so were the Lakers. That's when Shaquille O'Neal was quoted as saying 'I know the Sacramento Kings can't beat the Lakers and I'm trying to figure out if they can beat the Sparks'.
"When you have a team that can be dominant like ours, it creates great rivalries. We know what games are going to sell tickets before we even do anything, that's Phoenix, Minnesota. When we play rivals, it is great for the league."
Success creates rivalries, rivalries sell tickets and garner public attention, each of those generate revenue, which plays a huge part in the growth of the league.
UCLA – Men's College Basketball 1967-1973
Under the watchful eye of NCAA coaching behemoth John Wooden, the UCLA Bruins enjoyed an era of excellence yet to be matched in the men's college game. While Wooden spent 27 years at the helm, the team won 10 titles - seven of which were consecutive - over a 12-year period and they did it in style. UCLA's run from 1967-1973 was overwhelmingly impressive.
Marc Dellins was a UCLA student in the 1970s, before becoming to the athletic department's Lead Sports Information Director in 1984. He served in that role until the end of the 2010-2011 school year and is now the Special Assistant to the Athletic Director. He believes that Wooden's era remains untouchable.
"I would consider the 1967-73 run under Coach Wooden the most dominant era in the history of college basketball," Dellins told told FIBA.basketball. "Not to diminish any other schools' or coaches' success, the success earned by Coach Wooden and his student-athletes is unmatched. The Bruins won seven consecutive championships, losing just five games and going undefeated in three of the seven seasons. They won all 28 NCAA Tournament games they played during those seven years and won the Pac-8 title each year during the era that only conference champions advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
"I also believe that era of UCLA basketball will be remembered as the most transformational period of college basketball. 1968 saw the first-ever made-for-television neutral-site game (UCLA-Houston in the Houston Astrodome). The NCAA rules committee eliminated the dunk shot following the 1967 season to limit the effectiveness of Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and did not restore it to the rule book until prior to the 1976-77 season. In an era when a school had to win its conference championship just to participate in the NCAA Tournament, Coach Wooden won seven consecutive NCAA titles and compiled a record of 28-0 in those seven tournaments. Those records will never be matched."
Wooden is remembered as one of the greatest coaches of all time and much of that is due to his method. While UCLA convincingly bettered rival teams with their rosters that included legendary players such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton, much of their success was attributed to their coach’s positive approach to the game.
"I would say it is false to say he had a thirst to dominate the opposition, I believe that Coach Wooden, who always viewed himself as a teacher, strived to prepare his student-athletes for any situation they might encounter during a game. He did not believe in scouting an upcoming opponent, preferring to prepare his team to be the best doing what they did offensively and defensively. To quote one of his famous sayings, ‘Failure to prepare is preparing to fail."
Not only did the era stamp itself into the basketball history books; it had a huge impact on the culture within the university itself. The excellence of the Bruins basketball program provided the college with an elevated platform from which they could progress. Dellins described just how invaluable Wooden’s UCLA are to the history and future of the school.
"In terms of UCLA, Coach Wooden and his 'Pyramid of Success' are a foundation of the school's athletic philosophy," he said. "The Wooden Academy, named after Coach Wooden, is a student-athlete development program designed to educate and support Bruin student-athletes throughout their career at UCLA. The goal is to create a strong network of future Bruin leaders and provide them with the needed skillset to be successful in all their endeavors. Student-athletes have the opportunity to participate in the Legacy Program, the Speaker Symposium and the Champions Program.
"The Wooden Athletic Fund is dedicated to honoring the lasting educational and athletic legacy of Nell and John Wooden. Together, members of the Wooden Athletic Fund team provide invaluable support for all 700 UCLA student-athletes, and every gift has a positive impact on their ability to succeed in the classroom, in competition and in the community."
This period of UCLA’s legacy has impacted the lives of thousands of people in a progressive and positive way.
UCONN - Women's College Basketball 2013-2016
It's hard to even know where to start with this team. UConn currently has an all-time record of 1119-297 since the team’s formation in 1974. They hold an almost endless run of records within the game, including two undefeated seasons, a longest streak of 111 straight wins and a second longest streak of 90 wins. The Huskies have won 11 NCAA championships, including a record run of four in a row between 2013-2016.
Ahead of 2012-2013, Head Coach Geno Auriemma's team landed three major recruits at once, with Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson joining the roster. That year, they went on to beat Louisville in the Championship game, after experiencing a regular season that was somewhat turbulent by their ludicrously high standards.
In the next campaign, UConn was massively buoyed by the leadership of Stewart in her sophomore year, as they came to terms with the departure of Kelly Faris and Caroline Doty through graduation. It proved to be no issue, as they blazed through the regular season and ended with an undefeated 40-0 record on their way two a second consecutive title. On their way to the 2015 championship, the Huskies put together a 47-game winning streak, while Auriemma tied John Wooden for number of titles won. The fourth title during this period was won with serious conviction; with the addition of elite prospect Katie Lou Samuelson, they went undefeated once again, on their way to their 11th championship. For Auriemma, this meant surpassing Wooden's record and equaling Phil Jackson in titles won.
After this run, some believed that UConn’s domination was ‘ruining the game’ – a phrase most recently applied to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA and the tight stranglehold of their rivals. UConn's head coach couldn’t disagree more.
"The idea that Connecticut is hurting the game is absolutely absurd because, make no mistake about it, if Connecticut were not dominating the sport, there is so little enthusiasm and coverage outside of people who are passionate about the game," Auriemma said. "So the only way that the casual fan can be drawn in is by excellence and sustained excellence… we should appreciate sustained excellence."
Many believe that UConn's brilliance has had a meaningful knock-on effect on the WNBA too. Viewership has increased when their alumni have taken to the court professionally and their jerseys have sold handsomely.
The continuously impressive play of UConn plays a major part in bringing a wider audience to the women’s game.
The Boston Celtics - NBA 1960s
An infinite number of even the most exhaustive basketball debates have been based on inter-generational comparisons between NBA dynasties. There have been some truly dominant teams in NBA history, from Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls winning six rings in seven years or the show-time Lakers, to the Warriors team currently cementing themselves in the pantheon. All that said, while the level of play has continued to develop and arguably improve from generation to generation since their run, the 1960s Celtics remain the most dominant dynasty in NBA history.
On the back of their defensive anchor and NBA great Bill Russell, the Celtics won 11 titles over a 13-season period from 1957-1969, with eight of them won in succession. They beat the Los Angeles Lakers in six NBA finals, giving birth to the greatest rivalry in the NBA.
Basketball fans don’t need to be told that Russell was a huge figure in the development of the league while playing and coaching in Boston, both on and off the court. The Celtics' legendary head coach Red Auerbach was central to their early success and is revered to this day as an uncompromising winner who instilled a culture yet to be recreated by any other organization. Together, they are remembered as two of the league’s most prolific champions.
Tom Lane writes for a prominent Celtics fan-site, Celticslife.com, and has first-hand knowledge of what the Celtics did for the league at that time.
"In the 1960s, the Celtics were dominant and were the measuring stick for the rival teams," Lane told FIBA.basketball. "The Lakers were a perennial power, but even they could not overcome Boston, for the most part.
"The Celtics had the right combination of strong, stable ownership - a brilliant coach and business person in Red Auerbach, along with a dominant center in Bill Russell, who basically changed the game when he came into the league. Other NBA teams tried to follow Boston's path to a long-term dynasty, but few succeeded. But the fact they aspired to do that, made the entire League more successful."
Boston's reign set a precedent for the rest of the league, while they were marketed as an example of things to come in the growing business of basketball. Their raised platform also gave Russell and others an opportunity to work toward social change.
"To be remembered as dominant, sports teams have to win in overwhelming fashion, and they have to have the marketing hype behind them," Lazenby expressed. "Truth, however, is often found in context and context is never simple of objective. So the hype provides the context. We know that people can often be lead to believe what you want them to believe."
So, a legacy of dominance can rely on the right place and the right time. Often we depend on narrative and mass consumption to decide the relative importance of what happens in sports. Those that will go down as the most dominant teams are the groups that have created a clear chasm of quality between them and their closest rivals. The groups that win for unprecedented periods of time are presented as significant in the grand scale of basketball’s culture. It takes a perfect storm of proven excellence and momentum to be forever remembered in this game.
Novi Sad Al-Wahda haven’t accumulated the attention of the other historically great teams on the above list and they will may well be forgotten sooner. However, they have been as dominant as it gets within their selected field and nobody can take that away from them. As the media’s interest in 3x3 expands on an international level, the Serbian team's dominance is playing a formative role in the sport’s narrative, as the current team to beat and an inspiration to aspiring players that see it as an avenue to professional basketball.
Winning absolutely, positively matters.
We talked about the importance of context in how dominant teams are assessed. Novi Sad Al-Wahda are literally defining what dominant looks like in the context of 3x3 basketball right now. As is evident from my list above – these kinds of dominant teams don’t come around very often and can make a difference beyond the game itself. Make sure you check out Novi Sad Al-Wahda while they’re at the top of their game.