The thud heard round Indiana
September 6, 2002
Well, it finally happened. Sure, it happened a lot sooner than I feared it would, but it finally happened, and oddly enough it’s not quite as embarrassing as I thought it might be.
I’m referring, of course, to something that most people would have imagined unthinkable just a few years ago: a loss by a U.S. basketball team to one from another country at an international tournament.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve dropped international contests before; the infamous loss to the Soviets in 1972 leaps immediately to mind. But amateur guidelines forced us to use college kids way back when. Since pros were allowed to play on national teams starting in 1992 with the original Dream Team, most international tournaments have been decidedly one-sided affairs. In fact, so decided has been our advantage that American players spend more time partying and golfing on their way to the title than they do playing ball.
So if last Wednesday’s 87-80 loss to Argentina had come at the hands of college ballplayers it wouldn’t be noteworthy. Unfortunately, the defeat, which will not necessarily cost the U.S. team the gold at the FIBA World Championships in Indianapolis, came courtesy of a team comprised of NBA all-stars and just one collegian, Kansas’ Nick Collison.
Keep in mind that the original Dream Teamers were icons and virtually all known by just their first names: Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, Patrick, Karl, etc. Their games were generally over long before they started. So awestruck did these legends leave their opponents that the latter routinely asked Team USA for autographs before the tipoff.
Certainly this year’s rendition, with its Barons, Andres, Bens, Jermaines, Pauls and Shawns, is destined not to be as hounded by the paparazzi as its predecessor, but it should still be potent enough to take on any team on the planet. After all, we are talking about Davis, Miller, Wallace, O’neal, Pierce and Marion, respectively, so it’s not as if Team USA had to scour the benches of the NBA to fill out its roster.
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However, it is notable that the current crop of one-name stars are not playing for Team USA. There’s no Shaq, no Kobe, no Vince, no Kevin, no Allen (that would be Iverson, though Ray Allen is also conspicuously absent from a team coached by his coach, George Karl of the Milwaukee Bucks). And it is in this apparent apathy on the part of these superstars that I take solace, despite the enormity of the defeat.
We clearly have not fielded the best team we can, though we still put a good team on the floor. The result is that, as marked men at every international affair, such a team will inevitably lose, regardless of the talent advantage they may have over their opponents. The truth is, the rest of the world plays pretty good basketball, and they are not nearly as far behind the United States as we might have thought before Argentina enlightened us.
The warning signs were there if we’d chosen to heed them: Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki is fast becoming one of the top players in the NBA; Lithuania lost by just nine points to us at the last Olympics; and one year after Spain’s Pau Gasol was the third pick in the draft and went on to win rookie of the year, China’s Yao Ming was selected No. 1 overall.
The gritty Argentine team that took down the United States in Indianapolis has four players who have or will soon have NBA experience, and nearly every team present had at least a few professionals playing for it. And for those other teams, a world championship is a very big deal.
If it seems like no big deal to Americans, it is only because we are so accustomed to winning every international game by double digits. If this is the case, fine, don’t sweat the loss. It’s only a game after all; it truly is no big deal. But if this game did mean something bigger, maybe it’s time we do something about it.
I have no doubt that losing will shake the current American players out of their complacency and spur them on to the gold medal, thereby proving that they are indeed the best team on the planet. However, maybe next time around we should try a little harder to field an even better squad ? one that will take these games seriously and one that we all know by name, if you know what I mean.
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