Thursday, August 19, 2004
Olympic questions and answers
By Ric Bucher
ESPN the Magazine
Proposing to create a non-NBA national team as the answer to our dissipating competitiveness in international basketball generated a larger-than-usual windfall of comments and alternate suggestions. Here are some of them, followed by my response, when necessary. (Perk of the job: always getting the last word.)
Do you think there's any chance of this actually happening?
The first option the NBA will try is selecting more wisely, beginning with putting more shooters on the squad. Expanding the league's international market is still too important to let go. Only if and when the losses continue to pile up, meaning the wheels will have fallen off the desired marketing vehicle, will David Stern decide it's unrealistic to expect NBA players to compete for 82-plus games and be better than the rest of the world playing a completely different version of the game.
What level of talent are you going to find outside of the players that are currently playing in the NBA? You may be able to get a group of eager semi-talented guys who play cohesively, but let's face it, if they were high-caliber ball players, they'd already be suited up in an NBA jersey. Your suggestion would leave USA basketball looking like it did prior to 1992.
Prior to '92, we used strictly collegiate talent. My idea is to use CBA, NBDL and Americans playing abroad -- non-NBA pros, basically -- and have them train together prior to major tournaments and maybe play exhibitions here and there during the course of a year. We won bronze in '98 with such players even though they had the same two-week prep time our NBA teams have had. We're getting beat because of our lack of cohesion and familiarity with international rules and style of play, not because we don't have a thousand players who have all the requisite ability to compete for a gold medal -- given the proper preparation.
If the marketing department is just halfway competent, they could make a killing just promoting the recent champions as the national team. The guys will have time together and less of an adjustment curve to climb. In the case of international players on the championship team, protocol should be to ask the conference champion players. None of this cherry-picking nonsense. There's no reason to choose what some clown in USA Basketball thinks will sell.
Making the NBA champions our national team would severely undermine that team's chances to repeat because the injury and fatigue factors would multiply exponentially -- all because they happened to win in an Olympic or World Championship year. Playing a dozen games in a span of 2½ weeks in the middle of the summer simply isn't the way to recover from a NBA championship run or prepare for another one.
Stop making up excuses and realize that the players lack passion. NHL players play for their international teams during the season, go hurt, i.e., Steve Yzerman, still play their hearts out and the competition is much tougher. Most NBA players don't have the passion to play for their country like players from other countries do.
I can name a half-dozen international NBA players who chose not to play for their national teams in the 2003 pre-Olympic qualifying because they didn't have contracts for the upcoming season or they were recovering from injury. Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac are not playing for Serbia and Dirk Nowitzki and Manu Ginobili already have talked about how they can't continue to play both in the NBA and internationally. There are fewer examples of international NBA stars bowing out of international competition because international NBA stars are a relatively new phenomenon. The following e-mail reflects how we're not alone.
Here in Brazil we're facing the same problem. The NBA guys -- and those who are dreaming with draft and summer leagues -- are usually not part of our regular national team. Then we select them for the bigger competitions, like the Olympic Games, and have a totally disgruntled team with young talented players but no chemistry.
What I really don't understand is the selection criteria. Emeka Okafor couldn't handle Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter in the Pan-American Games. Richard Jefferson, I think, is the best example of athletic exuberance that doesn't fit well in the international game. And then we have the younger guys to sell T-shirts. Poor Tim Duncan.
Who needs it? The U. S. doesn't. I don't. The Dream Team cured me. When we rolled the first time and proved pros could play in the Olympics, it took the fun out of the grand ol' event. Bring back the amateurs! Better to lose and see youth at work than watch pampered pros on vacation.
I know you are a diehard NBA honk, but come on. That column today missed the point on several levels. These are multi-millionaires on this USA squad, who CAN'T play defense, don't care 10 percent as much as their opponents about winning, and are as dedicated as Shaq is to working out. You act as if these players made some sort of gigantic sacrifice to play in these games. THEY GET FOUR MONTHS OFF EVERY YEAR! The answer is not to build a minor-league year-round team that would get routinely beaten by superior competition, but to select a TEAM -- one that is made up of parts that fit, not the best 12 individual players you can find.
|Allen Iverson, who's playing with a broken thumb, gets banged up enough during the NBA season.|
Considering non-NBA pros with little preparation won a bronze medal in the World Championships in '98, I don't see how they would get "routinely" beaten, especially if they had more practice time together playing international basketball. That said, for every player that decided not to play, there were several -- including those on the current team -- who were eager to participate, even though any one of them could be Allen Iverson, who is now playing with a fractured thumb that could undermine his upcoming NBA season. I know to the Average Joe working 9 to 5 and getting a week's vacation that playing ball for 8½ months (at the most) and getting paid millions seems like a cakewalk; and it is a dream life, in many ways. But that makes it no less a physically cruel sport that kicks you to the curb the second your body begins to break down -- and every player who plays in the NBA and internationally exponentially increases the chance of that happening.
I host a show on NBA TV called "Basketball International." What I don't understand is why we always talk about the issue of getting injured and then sacrificing your paycheck when it comes to NBA players. International players are in the exact same situation.
No league in the world plays a schedule as long or as grueling as the NBA's.
The NBA needs to change its rules to the international game! The NBA game has been passed by the basketball "world." The NBA game is the only one with certain rules to accommodate the fan and generate money for owners and or individual players. At one time the NBA game was great but it is time to change. Also, there are too many arrogant, stubborn people who don't want to face reality and accept that the other countries are better than their "heroes" that they've worshipped for many years.
Mark. K. Rodrigues
I like the idea, even though it smacks a little of shaving your head because your bangs are getting in your eyes. In any case, if you think getting the NBA to loosen its grip on the national team might be hard, imagine getting it to completely overhaul a style that has prompted NBA franchises to increase in value from tens of millions to the mid-level hundreds of millions over the last decade. I think the change to how we play the game has to start much earlier -- at the AAU and college levels, where fundamentals have taken a far bigger slide -- so that's where I'd start with introducing international rules. Besides, our best NBA players have demonstrated they're not very adept at the international game -- now fans have to pay $50 and up to watch them struggle every night without the relief of an adept opponent or the individual bits of magic the NBA rules accommodate?
Every four years simply offer the following prize: The team that wins the NCAA tourney will represent the USA in the Olympics. They have been playing together, won the tournament together and should do better than the current crop. How much incentive would that be to win the NCAA tourney?
The concept has to work every two years, since there are the World Championships as well. Truth is, I don't think our college championship teams would have the depth to survive against the world's best.
Start a basketball program for the sole purpose of winning international competition? God I hope you're joking. You say that other countries' players train together for years, but where do you get this information from? They are just like us -- they play in their own league, and then come together before competitions. You don't see Nowitzki flying to Germany to train with the German national team do you?
The Puerto Rico team that beat Team USA is the exact same team I saw compete in the '99 pre-Olympic qualifying -- and again in the 2003 qualifying. Meanwhile, Duncan is the only player back from the '99 USA team, in part because he got, ahem, hurt the following season. The Chinese national team, for one, began training weeks before Yao Ming joined it. In short, other national teams train at least as long as ours do for the major tournaments and they've been playing together for years, which affords them a familiarity that we can't come close to matching. They've also grown up playing by international rules and running the same sets their national teams use, so there's another base we simply don't have. But put all that aside -- if we could afford to have a team that played together more than teams for other countries, why wouldn't we want that?
I say basketball is 30 percent talent and 70 percent brain! The international players are better trained in playing team defense, team offense, playing together and so they can adapt better when they're asked to play together in a newly shaped team, because they all know what to do! Why? Because they learned it!
As for your players? They simply do not learn basketball anymore, but you can't even blame these guys for that fact, because your system produces the players you guys want! Last-second shots, dunks, alley-oops, no-look passes! It's nice to watch, but you don't win basketball games with that kind of stuff. You are all overly excited about an 18-year old high-school boy, who never really was forced to play IN a team, because he's so gifted with talent.
Editor, ARD (German television)
We do not have to win. These international competitions are fun and exciting. Let the college players have a chance. It could be one more incentive/reward for staying in school. Send the overpaid prima donnas back to their million-dollar homes and fancy cars. If the schedule does not work for college student then send the CBA all star team. Most of all, get over the need to win.
And Phil Jackson thought he was the Zenmaster ...
I concur with your recent column 100 percent. I would propose, in addition, however, that the NCAA stop tinkering with the rules and accept the fact that the international rules are the de facto standard and are in fact superior to the NCAA rules. Throw out the chip-shot 3-pointer and simply adopt the international rules. Not only will it make the college game better, but it will prepare our players for international competition and substantially ease the transition when our teams are selected for international play. Finally, it will be at least a step away from our national "our way is always best" arrogance.
I think you missed an obvious choice, so obvious, I can't believe I'm the only one who's thought about it. Send the Harlem Globetrotters!
Michael R Kuhn
For the record, you're not the only one. I just wish the Globetrotters would decide if they're showmen or an independent semi-pro traveling team. As is, they've fallen into that gray area between Athletes in Action and the And1 Mixed Tape Crew.
Three Major Reasons Your Idea Will Not Work:
1. Try generating nationwide buzz around a group of NBDL and CBA players. Personally, I got enough of watching phenoms such as Jason Capel and Rusty LaRue in college. I can do without it now and I don't even want to imagine the ratings.
2. The Olympics are an awesome forum for generating international and subsequent revenue for the NBA game, its players and its teams. We lose all of that with a squad compiled of mid-level talents who couldn't hack it in the league.
3. We're America, the good ol' U.S. of A. Basketball is our game and we should send our best (or the best that are willing to go). And I don't exactly feel bad about having these multi-millionaires play a few extra games every four years, especially for a cause as important as representing the country which has blessed them with so much.
And, by the way, I believe we are looking at a gold-medal team as it stands. Let's get behind these guys.
1. The only buzz I've heard around our teams for the last few years has been that ominous drone an angry crowd that resembles unhappy hornets. Worrying about ratings is exactly why our game is the way it is.
2. We're not generating interest in the league with teams that can't medal. And from what one NBA owner tells me, the expense of promoting our game internationally has left a profit margin hardly worth protecting.
3. America, as I know it, is the land of opportunity. Meaning that playing in the Olympics should be open to those capable of representing us best. Playing in the NBA shouldn't be a prerequisite.
Your prediction has been duly noted.
Creating a dedicated, year-round USA team of non-NBA players has a fundamental flaw, at least from the perspective of non-American fans of international basketball. We "foreign" fans take great delight in seeing the USA team beaten. It really doesn't matter who beats them; it's just the fact of someone triumphing over the acknowledged top dogs of the sport that gets us excited. What is particularly irksome, though, is the reaction that we often hear from the American media in response to a Team USA loss. The stock reaction seems to be something along the lines of "Ah, but if we'd sent ..."
If creating a dedicated non-NBA national team concerns foreign fans that their countries may not beat such a team or find the same degree of satisfaction in doing so only reinforces my belief in the idea. I'd rather have no-name Americans motivated to make their reputations knocking off NBA stars on other national teams than have our NBA players playing Goliath. As for taking the excuse that the reason we're losing is because we're not sending our best, well, the point of my column disputed that notion entirely. We're not losing because we're not sending our absolute best players. We're losing because our best are not very good at playing international basketball.
I am an assistant basketball coach, at Kean University, a D-III program, and I could not agree with you more. It is the teamwork and understanding of how to play that is causing problems for USA basketball, on the international level. I think it would be great to put together a year-long national team and let them play in the CBA and international tournaments. We have plenty of players in this country who would be honored to play for the USA and, at the same time, improve their game so they could make an NBA roster. Not only that, it may change the way we teach the game. USA/NBA players care more about highlight reels (and SportsCenter) than learning the correct way to "play" basketball. As I ask young campers, at basketball camps, "Can anyone tell me the difference between playing basketball and playing basketball?" Very rarely do I get an answer.
Your article is right to the point, and I hope USA Basketball reads it and implements such a team.
On second thought, seeing how obviously brilliant and insightful Bill is, I'll let him have the last word.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds," published by Miramax and available in bookstores beginning Sept. 29. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org (he can't answer every e-mail -- he supposedly wants a life -- but will occasionally select a top five and answer them in his column). Also, click here to send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.