Dream On, Yanks

If you’re a basketball lover, 1992 seems like a long time ago. In Barcelona, the American “Dream Team” of mainly NBA pros (‘member who the lone collegian was?) waltzed and shimmied and giggled and jammed their way to uncontested wins over the world. (It was Duke U’s Christian Laettner.) Only ten years later, Dream Team Whatever was griping and stumbling its way to a sixth place finish in the world championship, right in Indianapolis. Then came another shock with the scuffling bronze in Olympic Athens. And so the Americans have gotten serious. They have player commitments through to Beijing in 2008. They have had actual tryouts. They have trained. And they hammered most of their opponents, though the Italians obviously got neither the memo nor the white flag. And come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve heard anybody dropping the “Dream Team” name for a while now.

And then came Greece. Did you see it? I’m fascinated by this surprising (but the more I think of it, not stunning) semifinal result, 101-95 for the Greek national team. They have not one NBA-er. (That will change.) In part, this is due to a 180 degree turn in the sociology of sport — turnabout fair play? — a case of a racism reversal from the once-widespread resistance to accepting black athletes. In basketball, certainly among its North American fans, there is now obvious suspicion about Caucasian ones, Nowitzki and Gasol and Nash notwithstanding. Perhaps a topic for another day.

Anyhow, I wouldn’t have thought the Americans would lose with their improved preparation, but then I’m a Coach K fan and a Bosh/Wade/Heinrich/Battier/Brand fan AND a build-for-the-future fan. Once (if ever) the basketball public in the States gets over the bitterness, it may be a good thing that they did lose. (I’m a big Silver Linings fan, too. It helps make sense of all the seemingly lost causes I’ve embraced, not to mention the ones I’ve coached!) At least now the Americans can’t so easily say “our game is fine”, even though it’s tough to find great shooters or passers or, apparently, defenders. Meanwhile, the Canadian hockey establishment continues to bellow exactly that, even when the NHL’s dash and delight are mainly imported from Europe. That’s where the NBA goes looking for outside shooters now, too, although the top scorers are still homegrown.

The Don, my one-time coach and long-time coaching buddy, wasn’t short of opinions. He views the American game as follows: about looking good, not about winning…can’t defend…it’s all 1 on 5…it was men against boys – talented boys, but boys…they don’t create for anyone but themselves…Coach K needs more time, I suppose, and so do a trio of superbly talented captains whose average age must be about 22.7. Yup, they’re young. From what I can tell, the players had their heads on pretty straight, but they started into their victory lap a bit too soon in the Greece game. For a change they had started quickly, and maybe they thought they could cruise from there. (That worked against Angola in ’92, but not against Greece on an ’06 evening in Japan. The Americans would even have to pay attention against a massively improved Angola squad, these days.)

Post-game email of the day was The Don at his most acerbic. Answer: BALL MOVEMENT. (Question: What aspect of the game does Team USA know nothing about?) John Stockton, come back! But he acknowledges their youth, and recognizes what the American players themselves may be starting to get. The international game is different. Clearouts don’t work so well. The individualism that sells so many NBA tickets, but that remains the bane of purists such as the immortal Coach John Wooden, can now be countered and even overcome by the teamwork and experience of national sides whose players have spent so much of their development together.

There are a few voices, mostly drowned out by the And 1 videos, that have been crying in the American sporting wilderness about how poorly taught too many of the best American kids are. (It’s the same in Canada for hockey.) While most thoughtful youth sports people advocate a 2:1 ratio of practices to games, it’s often the reverse (or worse), especially in the summer camps, the AAU all-star tournaments, and the high school hoops factories masquerading as private academies (the “diploma mills”).

Athletic kids can pick up flashy ballhandling, dunk-sickness and a certain kind of brittle, macho competitiveness from each other. Many of them, though, suffer from a lack of fundamental coaching – glaringly evident when it comes to shooting the ball – as opposed to just playing game after meaningless game. There are some who think this accounts for some of the problems in American ball. Kids play so many games that are really just about an individual’s Oooh Factor that, quite aside from limited skills, they develop an “oh, well” attitude toward team wins and losses. The elite kids must be playing 80 or more games per year for four or five different teams. Loyalty? Team feeling? The hoary old benefits of playing team sports? Hmmm.

Maybe the K can develop these things with the marvellously talented young men he has chosen. (And maybe a few others, speaking of Kobe.) Canada will have a heckuva job just qualifying for Beijing, especially since this loss means that the Americans will now have to compete for one of the same qualifying spots as we are. (Good luck, red ‘n’ white!) But that’s not the only reason I have for not gloating over the American loss, as many will. As long as they’re not playing against the maple leaf, I have no problem cheering for this American squad. Maybe what they’re learning will help make team play cool again. Now there’s a dream.

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