What a Failure to Win Gold in London Would Mean for American Basketball
I am not so unpatriotic as to be actively rooting against Team USA. But I do believe that some American basketball incompetence would at least inject intrigue into world basketball.
For a time, it seemed as though the rest of the world "has caught up" to America. In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Team USA nearly lost to Lithuania on a missed Šarūnas Jasikevičius three-point shot. In 2002, the United States was trounced in the World Championships, losing three games with a somewhat depleted team. At Athens in 2004, the infamously Marbury-led American squad was humiliated. Well, that's if you consider winning bronze to be humiliation. In America, we tend to have high standards for our hoops.
Suddenly, international basketball had become an interesting free-for-all. Your favorite NBA team was drafting locally unknown players from far flung nations, in hopes of finding the next Vlade Divac or Andrei Kirilenko.
There were always quality NBA players outside America's borders, but the international draft pick frenzy became something of a bubble. That bubble deflated after we learned Darko couldn't really play.
In the background (because these tournaments aren't so wildly popular), Team USA was doubted for a few years after the international draft pick bubble dissolved. A star-studded 2006 squad could not secure the FIBA World Championship.
Then Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski got their Manhattan hoops project going, fostering and fomenting a culture of international American basketball competition. Players were placed in the Team USA fold before they got an Olympic roster spot. The younger stars were put on the FIBA track, even if they were a ways from contributing.
It's paid off handsomely, well enough to re-convince us of American basketball dominance. Team USA crushed the Beijing Olympics, though they had a close win against a very good Spain squad. In 2010, Kevin Duran ran roughshod over international competition in the World Championships. So far, in the early Olympic games, the U.S. appears indomitable.
It is difficult to see where America's defeat might come from. Spain, Russia, France and Brazil could all plausibly pull it off, but it would likely be smarter to bet on a plus-20-point American victory. We are a long ways from the days where "the world has caught up." The world caught up, and then Team USA turned on the jets.
It's not fair, really. This is a nation of 300 million people that happened to invent the sport. Unlike baseball, basketball is popular in our inner cities, where desperate youth turn to it as a way out of tough circumstances.
While football may be America's most popular sport to watch, basketball might be our national pastime. How often do you play a casual football game with friends? I would bet that it's less often than when you shoot hoops in the park. This is America's game, steeped deep into our culture. It is difficult for the newcomer world to compete.
But, if Team USA loses, these national tournaments could regain a sense of suspense. Remember the "Redeem Team" in the 2008 Olympics? That was an exciting squad to follow because victory did not feel so assured. Due to prior failures, there was a real fear of losing, which made success so much sweeter.
I would imagine that the sense of inevitable USA victory also has a dragging effect on world interest. Though the Dream Team inspired a generation abroad, the wonder has worn off as televised NBA games have humanized what were once thought of as perfect basketball gods. The world needs the U.S. to lose, just to get interested again. I won't be rooting for this to happen, but I can see the benefits from it happening.
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