Team USA has been squashing the competition at the FIBA Basketball World Cup, and with Spain knocked off, Mike Krzyzewski’s squad has an easy road to the title.
Really, I should be celebrating on behalf of my countrymen, praising Tom Thibodeau’s defense, heralding America’s ability to persevere through injuries and absences. Instead, I’m lamenting over how overmatched the rest of the world is.
It’s one thing when Team USA’s Olympic juggernaut (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Kevin Love) runs roughshod over its FIBA foes. Anthony Davis was the 12th man on that squad two years ago. But to do this while half-trying? To best the earth with your C team? It speaks to how basketball might not be as global as we were promised.
There was a time around the mid-2000s when America’s basketball decline was a fait accompli. “The rest of the world has caught up,” is what we told ourselves. In 2002, Team USA finished sixth in the FIBA World Championship. The 2003 NBA All-Star Game featured a record five international players, including Yao Ming, symbol of China’s imminent growth into a world basketball power. A year later, Team USA suffered a humiliating defeat in the Olympics, somehow failing to win gold despite featuring plenty of Stephon Marbury. In the 2006 FIBA World Championship, the U.S. was upset by tiny Greece.
America’s basketball demise wasn’t exactly framed as a failure, either. David Stern was keen to promote his promotion of basketball on the global level. This was the natural consequence of the game conquering abroad. Blame the Dream Team, for they had dazzled the world into jerseys and sneakers.
The NBA tells a certain story about itself, about how it’s a global sport on the march. Today, China. Tomorrow, India. Basketball is constantly engaged in a benign imperial conquest of people across the ocean. That story lives on because it’s in part true -- there are basketball leagues over all the world. The story also lives on because it’s vague. We don’t quite have a handle on TV ratings abroad.
Can that story stand up to recent scrutiny, though? The onslaught of international superstars hasn’t arrived. Last year’s All-Star Game featured three internationals, and two also claim American citizenship (Tony Parker, Joakim Noah). It seems that Yao Ming was more a generational talent than a harbinger of China’s fast-approaching hoops dominance. After Yao retired, many of his countrymen found hobbies that weren’t televised hoops.
It is difficult to measure world interest in basketball, but these FIBA games may hint at how invested these other countries are in the sport -- just as our relative weakness in soccer is indicative of how we care relatively less about it.
The story the NBA tells itself about the emerging, globalizing force of basketball is a good one, and I wish it were completely true. I love how the 2014 champion San Antonio Spurs dominated with an international approach. The sport is better for diversifying, for absorbing perspectives and approaches from all over. AAU camps now teach American kids the Eurostep because Manu Ginobili brought his diagonal stylings to the NBA.
As thrilling as the collectivist Spurs are, they don’t boast potential international stars. Kawhi Leonard is from the Inland Empire. The horizon isn’t replete with young Manus, Yaos and Dirks.
Sadly, Team USA’s success represents a failure of basketball on the global level -- for now, at least. The sport hasn’t grown by leaps as it seemed it would in the mid-2000s. The NBA still uses the story of world conquest as a bulwark for the insecurity caused by football’s stateside dominance. That narrative can’t survive so many Team USA victories.