Thursday’s Thoughts: Empty Cup?


Once again, Team USA is off and running.

Kyrie Irving executes a bullet bounce pass behind the defender to Kenneth Faried, who launches himself into the troposphere and hammers down a thunderous one-handed dunk that rattles not only the rim but the walls of the Bilbao Arena in Spain.

As I watch the action from my bar stool, my fists stab the air in triumph and I unleash an loudly-whispered “Yes!” as the USA builds its momentum in a basketball game against a tough Ukrainian team. I look around the pub to see if any fellow fist pumpers also appreciated such a thing of explosive artistry, but the handful of patrons at various tables are too busy munching their curly fries, sipping their craft beers and conversing about anything on God’s green earth except the World Cup of Basketball.

My shoulders sag as once again, I’m the only one in the whole joint who even cares what’s going on. For every US game in this year’s newly-christened Word Cup of Basketball (the World Basketball Championship was the old moniker) I’ve had to find a bar or restaurant to watch the games and in every case I’ve had to implore the bartender to please find the game for me on TV.

Team USA is the defending champ and is stocked with NBA talent, including 21-year-old sensation Anthony Davis, scoring machine James Harden and the electric Derrick Rose. True, many of the superstars sat this tournament out for various reasons bordering from the urgent (Paul George and his ghastly broken leg incident) to the questionable (Kevin Love and his off-season free agency distractions), but this is still a team chock full of talented pro players representing our country, which alone should make for energetic, entertaining games.

So why does no one seem to care a fig about it over here, or even know it’s going on? I’ll bet if you stop the average American in the street and offer to slap ten dollars in his palm if he can tell you anything—anything at all—about this tournament that has been held every four years since 1950, you’d probably keep your sawbuck every time.

 When the World Cup of Soccer was upon us a couple months ago, every pub was crammed with boisterous USA supporters dressed up and face-painted up, howling and cheering for their team and country. And this is soccer, folks. I realize it is not without its fans in this country, but still, it is a secondary sport at best here in the land of Lincoln and hot dogs. Yet every four years during the global phenomenon, frenzied fans flock to pubs and parties to root for their compatriots.

Then why do these same fans ignore a tournament that features a sport far more popular within American borders? Admittedly, in the international basketball arena the Olympics have always mattered more to Americans. College all-stars continually defeated the world’s best, usually putting on great shows in the process. And this despite the fact that they faced professional competition against Eastern Bloc countries. Oh sure, maybe o’l Fyodor was officially a “pig farmer” by trade, or Sergei was a “sausage maker” but you can bet these state-sponsored athletes trained year round as a cohesive team with one goal in mind: to bring the gold medal home to Mother Russia.

The Soviets finally broke through in 1988 as they slipped by the US team and ultimately copped the top prize. (Note: I never, ever count the 1972 sham of a game when the USSR was given chance after chance to win the gold until it finally succeeded with all the help in the world by the incompetent, idiot officials.) In the wake of the ‘88 loss we retaliated by saying, “Enough is enough, if you’re going to send your best then so are we!”

Enter the Dream Team.

Four years later in Barcelona a squad that featured the likes of Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and a fellow by the name of Michael Jordan mopped up the hardwood floor with every hapless victim it faced, the American stars flying and dunking and stomping their way to the gold medal podium.

Two years later NBA players were allowed to compete in the World Basketball Championship, and dubbed themselves Dream Team II. This was the first time I’d ever heard of the tournament, I admit, and it’s no secret why: the US finally took it seriously and let high-caliber pros compete. Plus, it was advertised and the games were on free TV, not on ESPN2 at 3 a.m.

The Americans tore through the competition that year, too, culminating in a 137-91 pounding of Russia for their gold medal coup de grace. I know what you’re thinking: “Well of course no one cares about this screwy tournament because we always beat up other teams. We just have to show up, and we win—what’s the fun in that?”

Actually, since 1994 when the NBA allowed its players to compete, we’ve only won it twice. True, 1998 was the lockout year and a hash of has-beens and Americans playing overseas were thrown together to comprise Team USA. But we legitimately blew it in 2006, falling to Greece in a semi-final and, more embarrassingly, finished 6th overall in the 2002 tournament—which we hosted, for crying out loud!

Even though we’re not shoe-ins to take this thing, when we play with a team-first mentality and have the right coaching to unify the players and bring it all together, then no other country’s program can touch us on its best day. USA ultimately defended its title, taking down upstart Mexico and European powers Slovenia, Lithuania and Serbia to grab the gold.

But some wondered how they might have fared against powerhouse Spain, who stumbled in the quarterfinals. Spain was not only the home country this year but featured a lineup of NBA players that have played together for years in tournaments and may have given the US team some trouble. And in a group stage game, Turkey actually led the US at the half, before the Americans pulled away relatively late in the game for a decisive victory.

So even if these tournament games are no longer formalities for a strong US team and could actually be real contests, why then does no one slather on the red, white and blue paint and tune in?

Part of it is that it comes on the heels of the more famous World Cup (soccer) and this event (basketball) feels almost like an afterthought. We as a planet are swept up with the pomp and pageantry of the soccer tournament and can’t muster any real energy to get excited about a second, lower-profile event. (The next basketball tournament will actually be in 2019, probably to avoid another clash with soccer mania.)

Another big blow against it is that it’s held right when football season kicks off. Nothing, and I mean nothing, can compete with the NFL and college football in this country, especially when we’ve been chomping at the bit to watch grown men hit each other full force on beautiful, late summer days. So of course that steals a lot of the proverbial thunder.

But a healthy chunk of the reason why no one pays any attention is that with the Olympics already featuring the marquee talent of the game’s best, this tournament loses its power. The World Cup of Soccer carries weight because it is recognized as the premier global tournament, bar none. Nobody can really name the Olympic soccer gold medalists in any given year, and there’s a reason for that. They don’t let seasoned pros compete, so it’s like a junior varsity tournament compared to the big boys of the World Cup. Plus, they only even allow two players over the age of 23 on any given team to ensure the World Cup’s popularity will never be eclipsed, and to mirror the original spirit of the Olympic Games: an amateur athletic competition.

The same could be done for basketball in the Olympics. Toss it back to the college kids, and give those youngsters the thrill of representing their nations. Impose an age limit also, to deter any shenanigans like the Soviets pulled when they sent their army of, uh, “amateurs.”

Then with the focus fully on the World Cup of Basketball as the real deal, perhaps Americans countrywide will actually look up from their chicken wraps and video bowling games to check out the best basketball players on the planet competing all out in games that are truly meaningful to them—and to us.

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