USA Basketball is Fun Again

Will SheltonSenior Analyst IAugust 14, 2008

As the Olympics continue to play with my workweek schedule and offer "distractions" almost 24 hours a day, this morning if you too were up early you could've seen the Americans take on Greece as they continue group play in men's basketball.

The Greeks defeated the Americans in the 2006 FIBA World Championships, another blemish on an American record that includes merely a bronze medal in the 2004 Athens games.

It's an interesting phenomenon, USA Basketball. The Dream Team in 1992 is still the greatest collection of talent on one team in sports history, and I don't think the debate is even close.

I was 10 years old that summer, and even if I couldn't fully appreciate the historical significance, man was it fun as a kid to watch Barkley get a rebound, find Magic, who fired an outlet pass to Bird, who found Jordan for a slam. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Watching those guys was as much about the unique moment and the hype (and merchandise) surrounding them as it was the actual basketball itself, and the original Dream Team was never challenged en route to the gold medal.

Years passed and other impressive incarnations brought home other medals, but without the unique first-time quality or the sheer star power of the original, Olympic and FIBA basketball got...well, kinda boring.

And over the years, while the European game kept improving, maybe the American players got bored too. Maybe they stopped taking it seriously. Maybe they lacked the team chemistry that was so evident for Argentina in 2004 when they won gold.

Either way, a sport that had already become boring suddenly became frustrating: the Americans were losing and at times not looking good doing so, on and off the court.

We expected dominance but got tired of watching it along the way, and then when it suddenly went away we got mad. You and I both know people who actually cheered against the Americans at times in the last decade. But surely you're not one of them.

But as a product of all those struggles, now on the other side of it, we're starting to care again.

Sure, the talent on the 2008 squad is impressive: Kobe, LeBron, D-Wade, 'Melo, Chris Paul and more. And sure, Coach K is on the bench. But more than that, it's a unique combination of two things that's making watching this team so much fun.

First of all, they play hard and they play well.

The '92 Dream Team was like watching the Globetrotters. They did anything they wanted for 40 minutes and you watched them for completely different reasons.

The '08 Redeem Team can't do that stuff when they're playing the upper half of the field, which includes Greece this morning, Spain on Saturday and anyone they'll see in the "playoff" portion. The competition is much better.

But in years past, the Americans were borderline lazy.

Guys who are not three point shooters would just jack threes from the shorter line...and miss. They played defense like it was an All-Star Game instead of an important event. They were moody and lacked cohesion...frankly there was little to watch or like but raw talent, and these days raw talent isn't enough.

In 2006, Greece scored triple digits on the Americans, who shot 28 threes while allowing Greece to shoot 62% from the field with only 4 steals. Basketball purists and enthusists either shook their fists or simply stopped caring.

This morning, the Americans held Greece to 69 points and forced 25 turnovers with 15 steals in a 92-69 win.

So yeah, you can still see some highlight reel plays with this team. And watching today, it's fun to see who really separates themselves on a team loaded with talent (Wade, LeBron and Chris Bosh, specifically).

But these guys play hard and they play with a sense of urgency. And Coach K doesn't pamper - Team USA plays a nine man rotation, which means Tayshaun Prince, Michael Redd and Coach K's own Carlos Boozer don't get in until garbage time. I like that.

It's that sense of urgency that's the second factor in making these games so much fun to watch.

Because no matter how talented or how well they're playing together now, the rest of the field is still good enough to give them a run for their money.

They're the best team in the field, but they're still human. And that makes it much more interesting.

I like turning on the game and not knowing for sure that the Americans are going to win by 30. I like the danger and the sense of urgency. I like that this morning's game involved one second quarter spurt from Team USA to put themselves way out in front, but the rest of it was fairly even.

And again, it's only going to get better/worse - Spain will probably be the best team they've played so far, and then it's on to the quarterfinals where everybody's good.

Those in the southeast and Vol Nation are familiar with some of this phenomenon. The Lady Vols are so consistently dominant every year, I almost never watch them in the regular season. Last year, in a National Championship year, I watched exactly one regular season game when they played Notre Dame, because it happened to be on. I watched some SEC Tournament stuff, and then didn't watch again until the Sweet 16. Because it's a forgone conclusion.

But no matter how dominant, when the outcome is in doubt, the Lady Vols are incredibly fun to watch. They play hard, they play well, they play together. The semifinal game against LSU this season was incredibly intense.

The outcome is in doubt for the Americans, even though they're the best team in the field. You can still see alley-oops and LeBron James' attempt to set a record for most creative ways to block a shot in one Olympics. And hopefully, probably, you'll still see them win a medal and it should be gold.

But I love the fact that I can't type "they'll win the gold for sure." I love that the competition is at that level. And I love that the Americans are finally playing up to the task.