It's one of the sporting world's most ridiculous unwritten rules that one can win, provided they don't win by too much. The very sanctity of the game is at stake, after all, and granting a proud opponent pity—the most backwards display of sportsmanship imaginable—is apparently the mandatory high road. Anything less or more warrants investigation and high-horsed criticism, all extended from the notion that building up a substantial lead somehow amounts to "running up the score."
For whatever reason, dominance in sports can't simply be dominance. It has to, by extension, be seen to embarrass the bested competitor or team, even when lopsided outcomes are an implicit part of any competition. All athletes are not created equal, and yet competitors are expected to patronize one another in catering to a very general and hardly applicable sympathy.
All of which sets the stage for the line of questioning that was sure to follow Team USA's 83-point win over Nigeria's national team. The latter is squarely among the worst teams in the Olympic pool, and the former stands out as the tournament's best. What proceeded was only what the recipe for disaster afforded; the disparity in talent was inescapable, and when Nigeria failed to capture the same spirit that empowered the Tunisian national team to (very briefly) hang with the Americans earlier in the week, the underdogs found themselves dead in the water.
Carmelo Anthony led a barrage of outside shooting that decided the outcome of the game within minutes, and Mike Krzyzewski had benched his top players as soon as was reasonable. Yet when the blowout wrapped, it was only a matter of time before someone invoked the most eye-roll-worthy of sporting narratives. A question about running up the score was posed to USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski rather directly, and his response was documented by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:
"We didn't play LeBron [James] and Kobe [Bryant] in the second half, and with Carmelo shooting like that, we benched him," Krzyzewski said. "We didn't take any fast breaks in the fourth quarter, and we played all zone. You have to take a shot every 24 seconds, and the shots we took happened to be hit."
"I take offense to this question because there's no way in the world that our program in the United States sets out to humiliate anyone."
Krzyzewski nodded toward Nigeria coach Ayodele Bakare and decided to speak for him too. "Coach would think it humiliating if we didn't play hard."
But the more telling quote came from a member of the Nigerian team, again courtesy of Wojnarowski:
"On the one side, it's terrible to get whupped like that," Nigeria's Koko Archibong said. "But on the other side, it was something impressive to be a part of – impressive to witness in person."
Even being buried beneath three-pointer after three-pointer doesn't necessitate a feeling of disgrace. So long as all competitors involved play with some sense of integrity, a blowout can just be a blowout—even if the lead swells to 83 points.
Team USA played well and played hard, and to those who looked past the game for the scoreboard, I could certainly understand why this would seem to be a relevant concern. But given the way that Team USA played in this specific game and the way they've conducted themselves in the Olympics to date, is there any informed reason to jump to such inane conclusions? Is there something so wrong with excitement over making history, exuberance over a teammate's accomplishments, or celebration of a game well played?
Thirty minutes of draining the shot clock would have been ridiculous and even more demoralizing, and one can hardly blame Team USA for taking—and making—what in many cases were wide open shots. That's just the way basketball goes when the the disparity between teams is so painfully large. It's a shame that the discussion of a bafflingly efficient performance has to be reduced to this kind of heavy-handed questioning, but at this point we have little reason to expect otherwise. Unbalanced outcomes create a perceived need for more relevant storylines, and while claims of running up the score should hardly register as compelling, they're apparently resonant enough with those who couldn't be bothered to pay attention to the game at hand.
So enjoy the banter, if that's your thing. But the rest of us will acknowledge an incredible showing from an incredible team, and happily move on to the rest of a far more intriguing Olympic schedule.
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