Team USA has lost its way

Basketball Digest,  Nov-Dec, 2004  by Brett Ballantin

Evidently TEAM USA/DREAM Team Mach Four--you know, the team that few of the NBA's best (Shaq, Ray Allen, Ben Wallace) wanted to play for that finished a barely-there third in the 2004 Olympics--is above reproach. Gregg Popovich, who never needs an excuse to scold the media, said so. Ditto Richard Jefferson, whose honesty is welcomed, if Unnerving. Welcome to the new, touchy-feely NBA, FIBA edition.

I'm not sure if it was funny, touching, or sad, listening to Popovich talk about how meaningful the bronze medal was that the U.S. team backed into in Athens: "These guys gave up their summers, but now they're going to get a medal, and they're thrill. I mean it. They're thrilled."

The world has caught up to the U.S., one look at the NBA All-Star Game tells you that. But the team's performance from start to finish told us a lot more about heart than it did our "new" place in world hoops.

Oops. I'm in trouble now.

"The only thing that bothers me is when I heard so many people talking bad about the guys on this team," Jefferson said after the bronze medal game. "It was disrespectful and ignorant. Twelve guys decide to come who don't care and don't play together? It's a coward's statement."

Of course, Jefferson went on to say, "There's a reason why European guards are such good shooters. It's because they don't allow the big guys to play.

No, Richard, to question the performance of a U.S. team that not only was outplayed in games, but lost its composure far too often, isn't cowardice. But to whine about big guys not being able to play after barely taking bronze, that's disrespectful both to opponents and teammates.

Even the ultra low-key Tim Duncan, who should know (and play) better, made sure he ended his Olympic career on vitriolic terms: "I am 95% certain that my FIBA career is over. FIBA sucks."

Allen Iverson, of all people, emerged as the coolest head, a player who actually came close to getting it, honored to represent his country. "Young guys on the team should know and be aware that an opportunity like this might not come at all."

Team USA can take two directions from here. It can make the next team that suits up for international competition a true Dream by recruiting Shaq, Kobe, Tracy McGrady, and Jermaine O'Neal, at least. But that won't happen. Weddings, injuries, Fatigue ... these days, they all get in the way.

The second option is to go in the other direction and forget the fantasy-draft approach. Make players earn their way onto the team in open tryouts and scrimmages for players and coaches alike. Appoint a USA basketball czar to place a want-ad in BASKETBALL DIGEST, secure a gym with plenty of balls and let it rip.

NBA players who hunger for a gold medal and long to represent their country would withstand the inherent risks. Deserving collegians and preps could also make the team. There wouldn't be any more reserved parking spaces for Mr. Jefferson or Mr. Popovich. The Olympic Experience would no longer be a "a three-week All-Star weekend," as George Karl Has taken to calling it. Team USA would Become afternoon after afternoon of wet sweat socks, scratching and clawing, learning the game ... and teamwork.

Karl was part of the U.S.'s worst international showing ever, a sixth-place finish in the 2002 FIBAs. But Larry Brown--now the helmsman of our second-worst international showing ever (devastating, I'm sure, considering Brown was a gold medalist on a 1964 U.S. squad that, ironically enough, was star-free)--agrees that we need to "stop looking at the Olympics as a way of marketing players."

As much as I'd love to relive the dominance of the Dream Team, leveling the playing field both in FIBA competition and in the NBA is exciting. What we all want is for Team USA to become a great team again. Win, or lose--just win or lose the right way. That's not too much to ask.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Century Publishing
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group