The Other World Cup: USA Basketball and Total Global Domination

Team USA’s modest run through the FIFA World Cup in Brazil this summer was considered an unqualified success, despite accomplishing little more than merely surviving a brutal preliminary round only to be promptly eliminated by Belgium in the round of 16. When all was said and done, we were just happy to be invited to the party.

But that wasn’t the real story. The real story was that more Americans watched the 2014 World Cup than ever before, shattering previous television ratings. It was a resounding indication that America’s former reluctance to embrace the world’s most popular sport has since given way to unbridled enthusiasm.

Admittedly, it’s hard not to get caught up in all the excitement, at the prospect of America someday conquering the last frontier of professional sports. That’s the only logical explanation for our relative indifference to the way the other Team USA routinely dominates the world in basketball. Soccer might still be the world’s most popular sport, but thanks to the massive television contracts David Stern and Adam Silver have brokered in thousands of markets all across the globe, basketball is in many ways the fastest growing sport.

With that in mind, it’s time to start appreciating USA Basketball again for the unparalleled powerhouse that it is, and the recently rebranded 2014 FIBA World Cup of Basketball at the end of August is a good place to start.

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It’s 6:40 pm, Tuesday, April 8, and Coach Roy Rana has whistled for his squad to huddle up on the far end of the court here at the Trailblazers practice facility nestled deep in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon just off the Interstate 5 corridor. He whistles not with a standard issue referee whistle but with the power of his own lungs, and the sound he emits resembles that of a bird of prey. This is something of a trademark for Rana, and he’ll use it several more times during the World Select Team’s two-hour practice session to command his players’ attention. It’s 40 minutes into their second practice of the week leading up to the 2014 Nike Hoop Summit game, and the players are only now getting their first breather.

These practice sessions are grueling. It’s exhausting just watching them. But these young men have barely managed to break a sweat. Such is the boundless energy of youth. Less than two minutes later, practice resumes. Rana divides the frontcourt players (the forwards and centers) from the backcourt players (the guards and wings) to do separate drills. For several more minutes, they do variations on catch-and-shoot situations and pick-n-roll scenarios, followed by a variety of post moves. It is a virtual ballet of kinetic energy and perpetual motion. These drills are all about repetition and muscle memory, preparing the body to react quickly and instinctively in game situations, and it’s evident that they’ve performed these drills so many times that they could sleepwalk their way through them, even at three-quarter speed.

It doesn’t take long to realize that Coach Rana is a perfectionist. He stops practice frequently to correct his players’ defensive positioning and rotations, where their arms should be when guarding the passing lanes and playing on-ball defense, all the minutiae of the game that young players haven’t mastered yet. He’s demanding without being tyrannical, and his anxiety and his attention to detail is partially because he knows what he’s up against later in the week, i.e. a USA Team hungry to recapture the Nike Hoop Summit crown that has belonged to Rana and the World Select Team for the past two years.

Rana and his team are a microcosm for how the rest of world thinks about, and prepares for, USA Basketball. Aside from a few regrettable performances (namely the 2004 Athens Olympics), USA Basketball’s dominance has been widely documented, and the Americans have long been the standard bearer for basketball excellence across the globe.

The USA men’s teams have won the gold medal in 14 of the 17 Olympics games in which they’ve competed and have only lost the gold medal once since NBA players were permitted to compete in the games beginning with the transcendent 1992 Dream Team, which is often (accurately) described as the greatest sports team ever assembled. Overall, they have an astounding win/loss record of 130-5. Likewise, the women’s team has an impressive 50-3 record and has brought home the gold medal in five consecutive Olympic games.

The embarrassment that was the 2004 Olympics was a watershed moment for USA Basketball. For more than a decade prior, the USA had been able to bludgeon their way through the international competition behind superstar-stacked rosters alone, but a growing complacency combined with a windfall of international talent proved to be a recipe for disaster by the time the Athens Olympics rolled around. Nonetheless, the USA’s high profile meltdown on the international stage was also the catalyst for systematic change, and Team USA eventually emerged stronger and more focused than ever before.

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When Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski took over as head coach, his first order of business was to demand a minimum four-year commitment from prospective USA Basketball players. It’s a philosophy that’s trickled down all the way to the high school level. In addition, Coach K has helped make USA Basketball “cool” again by transforming it into an exclusive club that players have to compete for in order to earn a roster spot.

“The advantage of having a national team program like we’ve developed since Jerry [Colangelo] took over in 2005 is the incredible depth of talent we can draw from. The commitment we receive from our players continues to amaze me and the fact that all of the players who will be in Las Vegas all have prior USA Basketball experience shows that the USA Basketball pipeline is working. The prior experience these guys have will help us with our continuity and jelling as a team as well,” Coach K said in a press release announcing the upcoming training camp roster.

Today, USA Basketball starts grooming these players from a very young age. In addition to reclaiming the Nike Hoop Summit bragging rights this spring, the Men’s National Team also won gold at the 2014 FIBA Americas U18 Championship.

Last week, the 19-man roster for the 2014 Men’s National Team Training Camp was announced, which kicks off in Las Vegas Monday, July 28 through August 1. All 19 players have had previous USA Basketball experience; four were gold medalists in the 2012 Olympic team (Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kevin Love), and four were also part of the 2010 gold medalists World Championship team (Derrick Rose, Steph Curry, Durant, and Love). But the pedigree goes back even further than that. Davis, Durant, Love, and many others are also Nike Hoop Summit alums.

By the age of 18, most players on the Men’s Junior National team at the Nike Hoop Summit have already had multiple years of international competition under their belt. Justise Winslow has earned gold medals at the 2014 FIBA U18, 2013 FIBA U19, and the 2012 FIBA U17 World Championships. Theo Pinson won a gold medal at the 2011 FIBA Americas U16 Championship. Jahlil Okafor won gold medals at the 2013 FIBA U19 World Championship, the 2012 FIBA U17 World Championship (where he was named MVP), and the 2011 FIBA Americas U16 Championship. Tyus Jones and Stanley Johnson have each won gold medals at the 2014 FIBA U18 and the 2012 FIBA U17 World Championships, as well as the 2011 FIBA Americas U16 Championship. Joel Berry II won a gold medal at the 2012 FIBA U17 World Championship, and Cliff Alexander won a gold medal at the 2013 FIBA Americas 3-on-3 U18 Championship.

The Summit has become something of a showcase – or more aptly, a training ground – for future NBA and Olympic stars. Since Athens, USA Basketball, as an organization, has been cultivating a culture of discipline and consistency at all levels of competition. One of their fatal flaws in 2004 was haphazardly cobbling together a team of NBA stars that had little experience in the international game, and more important, a catastrophic lack of chemistry.

The squad the USA assembled for last year’s Nike Hoop Summit suffered a similar fate. It was loaded with star power (Aaron Gordon, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, the Harrison twins, et al) but wasn’t cohesive enough as a unit to dethrone a much more confident World Select Team. So this year, they regrouped and put together a team that was in some ways less glamorous than last year’s squad but far more polished. For Coach Mike Jones, it was all about getting back to basics, and that meant a renewed emphasis on something that’s historically made the USA such an overwhelming force in the past: their suffocating defense.

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With a full-court trap consisting of Stanley Johnson, Justise Winslow, and Kelly Oubre, the USA was able to force 22 turnovers with an absolutely smothering onslaught of lengthy and athletic perimeter defenders.

“This year, we tried to prepare for a little bit of everything, so putting in pressure, putting in zones for ourselves to be able to practice against really helped us,” Coach Jones said. “We saw that we were effective at it, and we really emphasized the pressure, man pressure and zone pressure…and the kids did a great job with it.

“Obviously, leaving here [last year], leaving the podium after losing wasn’t a good feeling. It was a long ride home.” Jones said. “…a lot of credit needs to go to the USA Basketball administration with giving us an extra day, with allowing us to have a training camp back in October with the entire developmental squad. I think that was a really big help. Then obviously having a team this year of guys that the coaching staff is already familiar with and most importantly, these guys were already familiar with themselves having played on the 16 and under, 17 and under teams for the bulk of them. It was a tremendous asset we had, and I think it really showed, especially when things got tough…”

USA Basketball, at all levels, started implementing the type of consistency Jones is referring to after 2004 when it became painfully obvious that talent alone was no longer enough. You can trace it all the way back to the ’92 Dream Team that took the world by storm and launched NBA basketball into the stratosphere and the upsurge of international talent and competition that followed and has been booming ever since.

At the start of the 2013-2014 season, the NBA featured a record number of international players – 92 from 39 different countries and territories, and the 2014 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs had a lineup consisting primarily of foreign-born players, starting with their Big Three: Tim Duncan (Virgin Islands), Tony Parker (France), and Manu Ginobili (Argentina). Rounding out their roster was Patty Mills (Australia), Boris Diaw (France), Tiago Splitter (Brazil), and Marco Belinelli (Italy).

And it’s becoming increasingly common for foreign-born players to relocate to America at a relatively early age and work their way up the high school, AAU, and collegiate ranks. A quick glance at the 2014 Nike Hoop Summit World Select Team roster shows that Trey Lyles (Canada), Karl Towns, Jr. (Dominican Republic), and Emmanuel Mudiay (Congo) all attended American high schools last year.

Despite the fact that these players are, for all practical purposes, American – i.e. they live in the states and attend American high schools, etc., much in the same way so many international players reside in American cities and play for NBA teams – there is a potent nationalistic pride underlining their competitiveness toward Team USA, just like their NBA counterparts who return home to represent their countries in the Olympics and compete against the USA.

When you ask these young men the difference between the week they spent in Chicago last spring leading up to the McDonald’s All-American Game and their week in Portland preparing for the Nike Hoop Summit, you’ll invariably get the same answer. The McDonald’s All-American Game, despite being the Valhalla of high school basketball honorifics, is little more than an All-Star event, a glorified pickup game with stakes not unlike those of the NBA All-Star Game, i.e. virtually no stakes at all. At the post-game press conference following the Summit, some of the World Select team players scoffed at the notion that the Nike Hoop Summit constitutes just another all-star game.

“For me, personally, I don’t even look at this as an All-Star Game,” Towns, Jr. said. “This is a real game. We go out there, and we play to win. It just so happens that it’s during the little three-week all-star break we all have, but this is so different from any all-star game because we come out here to compete. We come out here to win, and the game is meant for even more. Usually, the all-star games – the McDonald’s, Jordan’s [Jordan Brand Classic] – are meant for the best players in the United States, but this is for the best players in the whole entire world, and that’s why I love this event so much. We get to compete every day in practice, and we get to go out there and get some bragging rights.”

“Like he said, it’s definitely not an all-star game,” Mudiay added. “We took it as a personal challenge, the World vs. USA, trying to represent the international world, but like he said, we just came up short, but it definitely wasn’t an all-star game to me. It was a real game. Coaches were coaching for real. The whole week, preparation, practice, we were going hard, so it definitely wasn’t an all-star game.”

Team USA, it should be noted, only returned to dominance once they started showing some pride and quit treating the Olympics like just another All-Star game. And that meant taking things seriously and preparing for the worst.

It’s the American way.

Will you be watching the World Cup of Basketball?

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