It was the Olympics of diminished expectations for the U.S. men's basketball team. So when the Americans won last Saturday night's bronze medal game over Lithuania with a grim and grinding determination, then didn't moon anyone on the podium while Argentina's gold medal samba party went on around them, the final week of the Games could be deemed a qualified success. The U.S. players returned home on Monday with something around their necks, even though for the first time since 1988--and only the third time in 15 Olympics--it wasn't gold. ¬∂ "I admit it hurts," said forward Shawn Marion, who came off the bench to score 22 points and lead the U.S. to a 104-96 victory. "But at least we didn't go home empty-handed." Added forward Richard Jefferson, "Let's be honest--we didn't come here to get the bronze. But we can still be proud."
There is little to be said that doesn't include a but. And now, after a brief shout-out for Saturday night's effort, it's time for hard questions. Even before the U.S. lost its chance for gold, bowing 89-81 to Argentina in the semis last Friday, NBA commissioner David Stern, the officials and coaches of USA Basketball, and, to a much lesser extent, the players themselves stuck to the party line. To wit: The rest of the basketball-playing world continues to improve; this U.S. team competed hard and honorably; and the criticism that the players engendered was far harsher than they deserved. In an Olympics replete with drug use and unseemly celebrations by other nations' athletes, many chose to yammer on about guys with cornrows and tattoos lollygagging in the opening ceremonies. They should get a life.
But (there's that word again) the party line went only so far in addressing the root causes of three losses in seven Olympic games--namely, a selection process that emphasizes star quality over team needs; the fragile grasp of fundamentals by many NBA players, including good ones; the diminishing importance that American pros give to representing their country; and the NBA itself, which stands as lord and master over U.S. Olympic hoop hopes while putting in only a part-time effort.
When he wasn't castigating the media for negativity--a soft-shoe act he performs so assiduously these days that he should speak while sporting a top hat and cane--Stern admitted that the NBA may no longer be "the gold standard" of hoops around the world. Otherwise, the most powerful man in American basketball and the only one with the leverage to effect real change was whistling his happy tune. He insisted that having a 10-member committee (composed almost entirely of NBA personnel gurus) choose the roster works; that the U.S. doesn't need a standing national team coach; and that this Olympic squad, which numerous All-Stars chose not to join, was formidable. "We're loaded!" Stern said.
It may have been loaded for NBA play but not for this three-point-shooting clambake, which included 21 treys by Lithuania in the bronze game. Stern refuses to accept that the U.S. team was--and American hoops in general is--fundamentally flawed. He is wrong, and the fact that no pure zone-busting shooter (or shooters) was added to the team shows how entrenched is the notion that Americans can outquick and outjump every opponent. In a 12-team tournament the U.S. ranked last from behind the arc in makes (5.5 per game) and 11th in percentage (31.4). Does the fact that the Angolans were better marksmen than NBA players seem peculiar? "I don't think we're going to go back and change our game," said swingman Lamar Odom, who was a solid performer in Athens, "but some things you can incorporate, like the importance the international teams place on shooting."
There was a lot of talk about Americans being unaccustomed to the international rules, but Argentine point guard Pepe Sanchez, who has played for four NBA teams, wasn't buying it. "They zoned us, we made threes, and they had to come out of the zone," said Sanchez. "We zoned them, and they missed shots. What does this have to do with rules?" The dirty little secret of the American team was that it was also terrible defensively, not because the players didn't try but because they were unaccustomed to sliding their feet, talking to one another and working around picks. Those, too, are fundamentals.
Much has also been said about the U.S.'s not having the same team in Athens that qualified last summer in Puerto Rico. Would the addition of Tracy McGrady, Jason Kidd, Jermaine O'Neal, Ray Allen and Vince Carter have produced the gold? Who knows? In any case their absence does not validate the system. As long as NBA players are, in the words of '92 Dream Team coach Chuck Daly, "individual Fortune 500 corporations," many will treat national team play like the $6.99 buffet at Ponderosa: somewhere to stop only if it's convenient and nothing else is open. And after the hostile reception this team got in Greece and the way it was vilified back home, the appeal of suiting up for the red, white and blue may be at an alltime low.
With Stern leading the charge, USA Basketball must create incentives for national team play, talk it up, convince the superstars that there are good reasons for donning a U.S. uniform (even if it's just selling them on the endorsement opportunities). The onus is on the players too, especially some from this team who have been dragged through the mud. What is needed is a national team cheerleader, a role that Manu Ginobili plays for Argentina, which beat Italy 84-69 in the gold medal game. A respected figure like Tim Duncan would seem like a candidate, but his personality is not suited to the task. Nor does he have much love for the referees from basketball's governing body. "FIBA sucks," said Duncan after Saturday's game. Sounds like the Duncans won't be buying the Fodor's guide to Beijing.
The man who seemed to be volunteering for the job was Duncan's co-captain, Allen Iverson. After every game, victory or defeat, Iverson, the lightning rod for much of the invective directed at the NBA back home, was the one proffering the star-spangled sentiments. It's a dream come true for every basketball player.... You have to understand the things your country has brought you and you have to give something back.... I would advise anybody selected to a team like this to take that honor and cherish it.
It's one thing to proclaim your fealty to Mother Country and sign on for '08 in the heat of Olympic competition, as many from this team besides Iverson did; it's another to keep that commitment in your heart and persuade others that representing the U.S. is the right thing to do. Unless, of course, being the bronze standard is O.K. ‚ñ†
A League of Their Own
INTERNATIONAL PLAYERS are not exactly a novelty in the NBA. But not all of the good ones are in the league, some because they haven't been given the chance, others because they're happy where they are. Here's a lineup of Olympians who could prosper in the States.
• SARUNAS JASIKEVICIUS, PG, Lithuania. Slick passer and devastating three-point marksman torched the U.S. with 28 points in a preliminary-round game. Known primarily as a shooter at Maryland and never got a look. Stars for Maccabi Tel Aviv.
• RAMUNAS SISKAUSKAS, SG, Lithuania. Also ignored by NBA teams and now with Benetton Treviso in Italy, this 25-year-old is known as the Baltic Scottie Pippen for his versatility.
• JORGE GARBAJOSA, SF, Spain. At 6'9", shoots threes better than the respected guards on his team, Juan Carlos Navarro and Jose Manuel Calderon. Plays for Unicaja Malaga in Spain and has never gotten a tumble from the NBA.
• LUIS SCOLA, PF, Argentina (above). Bullish but skilled. Led the Games with 65.5% shooting. A second-round pick of the Spurs in 2002, he plays for Tau Ceramica Vitoria in Spain.
• FABRICIO OBERTO, C, Argentina. A broken hand cost him a trial with the Knicks in '99. Not as skilled as Scola but could help an NBA team. Stars for Pamesa Valencia in Spain. --J.M.