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Why the world will never catch up with USA basketball
BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer
It’s been 24 years since the Dream Team made its indelible mark on the 1992 Barcelona Games, where the world’s love affair with basketball truly began. It had been played globally for decades, sure, but it truly exploded when this collection of the game’s demigods including Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and eight other obscenely talented players cut down the competition by shooting and scoring and dunking at will, with plenty of style points to spare. Not only did the Team USA juggernaut grab the gold, but it proved one thing to the world definitively: if all the other countries were playing the game on earth, then we Americans were playing it in the stratosphere.
Years later at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the U.S. again won every game on its way to the top of the podium, but it was hardly without breaking a sweat. Even a squad that featured the likes of Vince Carter, Alonzo Mourning and Kevin Garnett had to scrap its way to gold during the elimination rounds, topping Lithuania by a lousy two points before beating France in the final by ten points—not exactly an overwhelming performance. A far cry from the blowouts we’d been accustomed to witnessing over the years, to say the least. While we expected flashy fast breaks and tomahawk dunks on the way to one-sided drubbings, we instead got closely contested games from opponents who no longer stood in mouth-agape awe of the guys wearing U-S-A across their chests.
The unthinkable actually happened in the World Championship of Basketball in Indianapolis, Ind. in 2002, when our team comprised of NBA players actually lost to international opponents—not once, not twice but three times. Argentina, Yugoslavia and Spain not only tugged on Superman’s cape but yanked it right off. In front of our home crowd we ultimately placed an embarrassing sixth place overall in the tournament and as bad as that was, the nadir of U.S. basketball came two years later at the Athens Olympics when Puerto Rico embarrassed Team USA by thumping them 92-73 in their opening game. The U.S. would go on to suffer another loss to Lithuania in group play before being defeated in the semifinals by Argentina. The mighty U.S. had lost only two games in its entire Olympic history to that point dating back to 1936 but in that tournament alone it managed to drop three. Although the team regrouped and bounced back to nab the bronze, it felt like the end of an era.
International players, coaches and fans of the sport had already begun the whispering. Now it had gotten louder. “Look out USA, we have caught up to you!” A restructuring of the USA basketball program and its philosophy was put in place to make us king of the hill once again, but before it could really take effect, we stumbled again, this time at the 2006 World Championships, where the U.S. couldn’t solve Greece in a semifinal game. Once again, we had to settle for third place and once again, the notion that the world had finally caught up to the U.S. was making its rounds all over the globe, this time with even more conviction. (Even as recently as the Rio Games, naysayers pointed out the fact that the U.S. had to survive a few close games against quality opponents when once upon a time they would have stomped them like Godzilla.) Add to the mix that these days international players are commonplace on just about every NBA roster and the argument becomes more potent, some will say.
Forgive me, but I think that’s just a bunch of horseradish. I’ll offer a few reasons why:
For USA, talent can trump chemistry
Many countries, such as perennial powerhouses Spain, Argentina and France go with the same core of players every tournament, promoting team unity and that all-important chemistry. The players come up through the ranks together, practice together, play together so naturally they are very in-tune with one another. The stars know their roles on the team, as do the supporting players. Brisk ball movement becomes a thing of beauty in their hands as they share that unspoken bond that comes from years of competing on the court together.
And in this respect, the Americans are at a disadvantage. The members of Team USA play musical chairs with every passing tournament, as different players are drawn from a large pool of eligible participants. Rarely do you have more than two or three players appear in consecutive tournaments. This group that recently struck gold in Rio featured only two members—Kevin Durant and the ageless Carmelo Anthony—that have ever even competed in the Olympics before! Furthermore, this version of Team USA featured only three players from the 2014 World Championship team. (Those guys beat everyone they faced, by the way, by at least 21 points.)
This makes Team USA’s accomplishments all the more impressive, if you ask me. Our unrivaled talent and athleticism is often good enough to win games but can you just imagine if we had a select team that was committed to practicing and playing together for months or even years and traveled the world to take on all comers? Honestly, barring malaria taking out half the roster, I doubt there’d be a single game the U.S. didn’t win by at least 30 points. The reality is that in a very short time frame this team has to be thrown together, gel as a unit with reasonable chemistry and be good enough to beat every experienced international team it faces—which it almost always does. And nine times out of 10 it does so with an exclamation point.
We can go deep
During any given tournament these days, no one on seven continents can touch us for depth. Take an excellent team like Serbia or France that can come at you with its starting five and run with you for a quarter or even a half. It’s only a matter of time before the bench has to play its role, and in this respect, Team USA can outshine anyone. When you have a steady stream of stars like James Harden or Anthony Davis or DeMar DeRozan checking into the game, playing ferocious defense with fresh legs and hitting their shots, well, it’s just demoralizing for the opponents. You simply can’t wear down 12 men. The U.S. just keeps throwing firepower on the floor, and if one outside shooter is off his game or a big man has gotten himself into foul trouble then there’s always someone ready to rip off his sweats and pick up the slack.
In the bigger picture, USA Basketball has taken steps to resurrect an interest and pride in playing for the national team at any level. According to FIBA, international basketball’s official ruling body, the U.S. is ranked number one not only in men’s and women’s but in boys’ and girls’ groupings as well. And across the board in these rankings, the gulf between the Americans and the runners up is bigger than the Atlantic Ocean, which means we constantly have a bottomless well of talent developing at every level, just waiting for its chance to win a gold medal or a world championship.
The ‘A’ game lives here
If you don’t honestly believe the pinnacle of professional basketball is the NBA, then you should just stick to your soccer and bocce ball and things you actually know. All you other nations and programs, please don’t embarrass yourselves by contesting this fact, as scores of hopefuls from every continent on earth strive to be good enough to one day play here. To be fair, not only are more and more of them are coming over but so many players on international team rosters have played their college ball at universities all over the United States.
And these are huge reasons why their countries’ national teams have improved as much as they have. Natural talent is one thing, sure, but it has to be nurtured and playing in the best college programs in the world, then at the highest pro level in the world, under the best coaches in the world elevates your game. Team Australia, which gave the U.S. a headache in the Rio preliminary games before the Americans put them away in the fourth quarter, started five NBA players. Spain and France—often mentioned as the teams that could give the U.S. trouble in international tournaments—boast many standout NBA players including Pau Gasol, Ricky Rubio and Tony Parker. All respect to the advancement of these international programs over the last 20-plus years, but just imagine if these countries had to face American NBA stars with just the talent that exists and is developed within their own borders. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it because that scenario was already played out in the 1992 Games, and we all know how that tuned out.
Even when we stink, we usually win
I watched the U.S. give perhaps its worst effort in years when it took on Venezuela in a preliminary game just before the Rio Olympics. Believe it or not, even a team with go-to guys like Kevin Durant, Demarcus Cousins and Jimmy Butler can collectively fizzle on a given night. It happens. We missed shots consistently and wound up a dreadful 4-of-25 from behind the three-point arc. But we pounded the boards to collect second- and third-chance points and played a solid defense that was good enough to hold the South American country to a scant 45 points—which might’ve been enough to win had the Venezuelans gone head to head with a middle school girls’ team. Used to lighting up the board, the Americans themselves only managed 80 in this ugly contest—but still thrashed their hapless opponents by 35 points.
Moral: when other teams have a really bad night, it usually means they go down in flames. When it happens to us—even though it is rare—it is a decent bet that we’ll still somehow pull out a win.
Coaches that bring it all together
One thing U.S. Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo wanted to end after the 2002 and 2004 losses was the revolving door of coaches for Team USA. He wanted a commitment from the players to don the USA jersey, sure, but also wanted to lock in a coach that would take the reins and lead the program back to greatness. When Coach Mike Krzyzewski took over in 2006, it wasn’t just for that year’s tournament but for the next ten years, and the softs-spoken mastermind of Duke University basketball was the perfect fit for the U.S. team. He not only had to whip the players back into a ‘team first’ mentality but had to manage millionaire players’ egos, their playing time and their respective roles in the ever-changing version of Team USA—all with only a few weeks to do it before a tournament. How did he do? His mind-blowing 88-1 record against international competition speaks for itself, not to mention the hardware—three Olympic gold medals and two world championship trophies that the U.S. bagged under his leadership.
And now that Coach K has finally stepped down, despair not. With proven winner coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs slated to take the helm, you can bet the winning ways for Team USA will continue.
Even if we stumble now and then, we’re still the best
With all this, I’m not saying that the U.S. won’t ever find itself on the short end of the final score. We probably will somewhere down the line, as no team or edition of any team is completely infallible. Maybe one night USA’s talent simply won’t be enough to overcome spot-on chemistry exhibited by the other team. We could play a terrible game on the same night our opponents play the game of their lives. Or maybe on a given night enough of our shots simply won’t fall. But despite this, we will still win far, far more games than we will lose, no matter what version of Team USA hits the hardwood. The fact is that our level of play is miles ahead of everyone else’s, and for us a loss is a fluke and is ALWAYS considered an upset. Name a single other nation that can make that claim, past or present.
For all those countries out there thinking that the world has caught up to the Americans simply because we don’t always trounce teams like the Dream Team did back in ‘92, talk to me when you can beat us half the time, or even some of the time, or hell, even a tenth of the time. Getting the better of us for only few games over a quarter of a century don’t mean you’re our equal, it means you’re our punching bag. And I don’t see that changing any time soon.