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.
I watched the United States play Argentina on Sunday – the first among these exhibition games that I had actually sat down to watch all 40 minutes. Before tipoff, I thought about the game in an NBA context – what if LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Tyson Chandler and Chris Paul faced Andres Nocioni, Manu Ginobili, Carlos Delfino, Luis Scola and some international no-name in Madison Square Garden? Anything less than a highlight reel-filled box score would set Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith ablaze. What about Brazil? Nene, Tiago Splitter, Leandro Barbosa and two other Brazilians no one has heard of? Even worse.
But this relies on the bombastic assumption that the best players in the US want to play in the NBA. That, because he’s a foreigner and hasn’t made it the League, (which, by the way, hails its championship as one of “world” proportions, a pretentiously inaccurate proclamation in itself), he’s just not that good. Of course this is not the case, but the general conversation surrounding our basketball culture lends itself to such a narrow-minded perspective. LeBron is the best player in the world, Michael Jordan the best player of all time. While these statements might be reasonable assumptions based on empirical evidence, they modify, and, consequently, solidify a certain unyielding line of thinking – that the NBA is the world, and foreign players are always fighting to gain entrance to this holy sanctuary.
But play the game in, say, Spain, with slightly different rules and a differently shaped painted area, and that disbelief is tempered. Announcers cited Argentina’s third overall rank in the world as some legitimate barometer of comparison – as if the two-spots-away-in-the-rankings argument holds any real weight. You just can’t compare Tiger Woods in his heyday to Phil Mickleson or Ernie Els or anyone else.
And then there’s the clumsy suggestion that Team USA is the sum of its parts. Basketball never unfolds that way. One or two players always take the lead, and the others fall in line. In theory, they’re able to better fulfill those secondary roles because they’re more talented. Except most are used to that leadership position, so we’re left with a cordial back and forth where no one wants to step on each other’s toes. (Side note: that’s the beauty of Tyson Chandler and Andre Iguodala – they know their roles and they’ve played them admirably and without complaint.) While it didn’t adversely affect the game’s result, it sparked the margin-of-victory conversation. “Are you sure you don’t want to shoot?” “No, no, no, you go ahead!”
When I watched the basketball unfold, and I saw these two games. The main attraction, of course, was the United States toying with Argentina, scoring 18 points in four minutes and reminding us why putting a bunch of superstars on the same team can be fun. But the half-court offense sideshow caught my eye as well, the inter-team identity crisis among USA players. There were no salaries and no hierarchy to dictate an order of things, so any possibility of offensive flow gave way to an overplayed adherence to etiquette, as if every player were walking on egg shells.
Over the course of 40 minutes, the Argentinians stuck around. Manu Ginobili euro-stepped his way all around the court and Luis Scola tried to barrel over every USA big like a set of bowling pins. Meanwhile, Team USA tip-toped around each other, going one-on-one in non-transition situations. Except, every player on the squad is talented enough to go one-on-one, so the strategy worked well enough to hold the lead. And so we won by six.
The truth of what should happen probably lies somewhere in the middle ground – we should be winning by more, and international players are talented enough to bridge the scoring gap. Maybe this lacks finality and clarity, if only because both of those statements seem irreconcilable. But they don’t have to be, if we can somehow acknowledge that winning by, say, 15 or 20, is enough of a statement.
What do you think is wrong with Team USA?
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