By now the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball players have put away their bronze medals (deep inside the sock drawer) and probably are wondering why they bothered to go in the first place.
“One of them told me he felt let down because people back home were rooting against them,” Swin Cash, a member of U.S. women’s gold-medal team and the Shock, told me.
Well, that’s a shame. No athlete should sense his country rooting against him. As defenders of this Dream Team have said: “Don’t get mad at these guys. They’re the ones who gave up their summers.”
On the other hand, that’s also the problem. NBA players want props for giving up a summer, while the rest of the world would wait a lifetime for the chance.
Look. The reason U.S. hoops lost its grip on gold is not a matter of shooting or defense. It’s a matter of interest. Other nations have it, we don’t. The cost of winning it all — time, practice, style change and ego — are simply not worth it to our merry band of multi-millionaires.
Think about it. Our players began practicing, in earnest, in late July. That’s three weeks before the Athens Games opened. Three weeks? Is that really on par with the sacrifice of other Olympians?
On top of that, our squad wasn’t forged as a “team,” solidifying as it played in international tournaments. It was assembled like a pizza — this topping, that topping — then thrown in Larry Brown’s oven to bake.
There were so many risks in how we approached Olympic basketball, you can find at least three perfectly logical reasons why we lost. Here are the gold, silver and bronze explanations.
Brown’s Bunch bombs
The Bronze Medal Explanation: Larry Brown. It’s not that he didn’t cherish the Olympic dream. But Larry is not the guy to jump start your car. Larry is the guy to build you one from scratch.
You can’t throw a bunch of young, cocky players alongside established, cocky veterans and tell Larry Brown to make it work fast. Brown will want to break them all down, get them scraped to sweaty basics, then carefully mold them into a unit. Great idea — if you have two years. Not if you have three weeks. Guys like Carmelo Anthony or Stephon Marbury are not going to undo all they are in such a short period of time — not for no pay, thousands of miles from home, while staying on a luxury ocean liner.
My heart goes out to Brown, the Pistons coach, because he truly wanted Olympic success. But in many ways, he was doomed from the start. Partly because of …
The Silver Medal Explanation: The players chosen. It wasn’t about talent. Don’t tell me the assorted Fabio-looking Argentineans had more talent than the Americans. If they did, why are almost none of them over here playing? It’s not like they don’t want to.
No. The problem was that the U.S. roster was chosen like videos at Blockbuster. If the most popular one is out, you go to the next most popular, if that one is gone, then the next most popular.
So when Shaq says no, you get Tim Duncan; when Kobe says no, you get Allen Iverson; when Kevin Garnett says no, make sure you have LeBron James. The selected players were much more about marketing than about meshing. Too many played the same position, and not enough brought the specific skills necessary for international success (three-point shooting, perimeter defense), That’s a deadly combination when paired with …
The ultimate hoops prize
The Gold Medal Explanation: Our basketball culture. Gold medals simply don’t matter that much to NBA players. It’s like Olympic tennis; sure, winning there would be nice, but Wimbledon is the real prize. Same with the NBA, where being league champions is what gets you the money, fame and satisfaction.
Those Argentine players can bathe in their Olympic success for the rest of their lives. They’ll never pay for a drink in Buenos Aires again. But if the United States had won the gold? What would it mean? Would you even remember who was on the team? If you said yes, answer me quickly: Who were the starting five in Sydney in 2000?
Now, if NBA stars wanted to form a national team, play in international tournaments between Olympics, work with a national coach on the passing, perimeter shooting and lack of one-on-one stuff that defines the international game — hey, we would kick butt every time.
But guess what? They don’t want to. And they don’t have to. There is no rule that says America must reign in international hoops. The whole “Dream Team” concept was forged from a bad idea anyhow, that losing with hungry college players was somehow unacceptable.
We’ll take the gold back in China in 2008, don’t worry. Every NBA superstar will want to be a white knight then. But in the long run, as long as our players measure sacrifice by “giving up a summer,” losing at Olympic basketball will become no less shocking than America not qualifying a baseball team.
Oops. Did that, too.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org”