FOR years, the men's world basketball championships were relatively obscure events played far from the American epicenter of the sport in places like Buenos Aires, Manila, and Montevideo, Uruguay.
The United States long paid it little heed, sending amateur clubs like the Denver Chevrolets (1950) and the Peoria (Ill.) Caterpillars (1954) to represent it in a tournament that often conflicted with the US basketball calendar.
More recently, the International Basketball Federation's championships have gained in stature, and now they are prepared to reach their zenith in Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario, which play hosts Aug. 4-14 to the first world championships ever held in North America.
The event is ideally situated and timed. It falls two years after the US electrified the basketball world by sending its ``Dream Team'' to capture the gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics and two years before the possible sequel is written at the 1996 Centennial Olympics in Atlanta. The championships are also sited in a country that has recently won two new National Basketball Association (NBA) expansion franchises, one in Toronto and one in Vancouver, British Columbia. They begin play during the 1995-96 season.
Competing teams: Canada received an automatic berth as the host country; the US an automatic berth by virtue of being the reigning Olympic champion. Fourteen other teams qualified in regional tournaments: Angola, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, Croatia, Cuba, Egypt, Germany, Greece, Puerto Rico, Russia, and South Korea.
Format: The 16 teams are divided into four groups. Each group plays a round-robin preliminary, with the top eight teams advancing to the final rounds.
Organizers: The International Basketball Federation (alias FIBA, pronounced FEE-buh), the sport's international governing body, puts on the world championships. It has 195 member countries.
Dream Team II: The US team is as high-powered commercially as it is athletically. Ten blue-chip companies have entered into an agreement with USA Basketball, the national governing body, to sponsor Dream Team II as well as Dream Team III, which will represent the US in the 1996 Olympics.
The future: The US has never hosted a world basketball championship, but that could change in 1998, when USA Basketball seeks to bring both the men's and women's tournaments to the US. No country has ever simultaneously staged both events.
Worldwide popularity: In 1991, an estimated 250 million players around the globe celebrated basketball's centenary. Perhaps the greatest ambassadors for the sport are the Harlem Globetrotters. Over the past six decades they have entertained more than 100 million fans worldwide and this year are touring 30 countries. The US armed forces have also spread the sport, as have American coaches, who have eagerly shared their knowledge of the game overseas.Women's world championships: Held in June in Australia, Brazil defeated China for the gold. The US captured the bronze. The American women's four titles are twice as many as the US men have won.
Turning point: The 1989 decision to eliminate the distinction between amateurs and professionals and make all players eligible for Olympic and world championship tournaments has brought greater public popularity to international competition. Consequently, in 1992 the US assembled superstars of the NBA into an Olympic squad that was dubbed the Dream Team by Sports Illustrated. The name was soon trademarked.