I always perceived Olympic basketball as little more than some self-aggrandizing cake walk for the United States. USA basketball is markedly better than that of the rest of the world, yet we have this incessant need to constantly humiliate other countries under the purported guise of competition and worldwide cooperation. Where this peculiar insecurity comes from, well that’s a good question. Maybe it’s some perverted notion of patriotism, that athletic dominance is somehow an illustration of something more, even when it’s not. Basketball is basketball, and that’s seemingly hard to swallow.
The best part of it all is the unflinching discarding of sportsmanship – the United States beat the Dominican Republic by a score of 113-59. In what other context besides international basketball is a 54-point decimation tolerable? (Now, don’t confuse this for moral grandstanding – win by 100 points, what do I care? It’s just the apparent lack of consistency that’s amusing.)
This inflated sense of self-worth is curious, but it ultimately detracts from the obviously magnificent product on the floor – in what other arena Would Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony et al. share the floor together? The All-Star Game, perhaps, but it lacks a certain competitive emotion. The Olympics, though, carry an inverted motive, one that LeBron James on his own has battled his entire NBA career: don’t lose. Kobe jokingly posited that Team USA players would lose their citizenship if they came home without the gold. We all laughed at the remark, while furtively darting our eyes this way and that because his lighthearted throwaway line had a glimmer of truth to it. The Olympics aren’t about winning for the USA. It’s about showmanship and style and flash, and, ultimately, beating the living sh*t out of every other country just because, well, we can. But seriously, don’t lose. That would be a catastrophic disaster of unparalleled proportions.
When I think of Team USA, I think of the Miami Heat. It’s a crude comparison, in that they’re both conglomerations of stars destined to dominate. But at its most basic level, they’re both driven by that same don’t-blow-it predisposition. When Miami won the NBA title, it was a sigh of relief that validated the most basic basketball notions – when you put the best basketball players on the same team, they win. It’s a simple concept, x is always greater than y. So when teams like Dallas tip that delicate balance, we scramble for an explanation, which, in most cases, boils down to some lengthy fluff piece on chemistry.
Both of these themes have emerged in these Olympics. A USA team that isn’t winning by enough and an experienced rest of the world who uses guile and smarts and familiarity with international play to outwit their more athletic foe. The latter is typically elusive and vague, with just enough buzz words to satisfy those one-minute television spots meant to debrief the failure at hand. Even if we consciously resist these bandaid excuses, they still seep into the larger conversation at hand. There’s nothing else there, and a void of silence is hardly palatable. So it becomes populated with comfort food and excessively lavish praise for international players, and we go home feeling good about ourselves.
Now, back to the former, the win-by-40 culture. My brain has decided that Team USA should demolish everyone based on the tangible fact that the Americans are way more talented and athletic. But that same brain can’t ignore a counterpoint, which is that sometimes things go awry in basketball. Unexplained, incomprehensible. A great player has a bad game, a bad player has a great game. It is what it is, and you just have to leave it at that. Still, I can’t help but buy in to these nagging and unfairly probing questions. Really? The USA only beat Argentina by six? And that’s the problem, right there: the irrational overwhelming the rational.