SportsProf

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Sunday, August 29, 2004

It's Argentina, That's Who

All during the Olympic games, I wondered aloud, as did many bloggers, pundits and columnists, about the ultimate fate of the U.S. Olympic basketball team. Everyone's emotions were conflicted. Some wanted the team to win and lose at the same time (not me, however, I always wanted them to win). Why win and lose? Win to uphold the American tradition of excellence in "our" sport, and lose to teach USA basketball some humility. In short, many fans have held the USA men's Olympic hoop team to a very complicated set of standards that would have been hard to meet unless they waxed every opponent by 30 points per game and quoted Robert Frost, Rudyard Kipling and Gandhi in their post-game press conferences (and perhaps going the fans one extra by locking arms with their opponents and the officials in a post-gold medal game folk song singalong).

And after they lost their first game, to Puerto Rico, I wondered aloud about whether there were 2 teams in the tournament remaining who could beat them? So did others, and no one could think of two others. The Serbs? Where was Peja Stojakovic? (The Serbs didn't make it past the preliminary round) The Chinese? Yao is tough, but the other four guys might have trouble making the Fork Union Military Academy JV. The Italians? Everyone said that when the U.S. lost to them in their pre-Olympic prep work, that the Italians weren't very good. And so the rationalizations went. After this loss, Coach Larry Brown and team members talked about a learning experience, how they could derive positives from this bad experience. Sure, because that's all they had. Ask any coach, and he would have told you that what the team needed was a huge, confidence building win over a team with one NBA player on it to prove to themselves that they could actually win the gold medal. Deep down, they had to be reeling.

And after they lost to the Lithuanians, a historically talented team with funky warm-ups who were led by a hot-shooting guard that had trouble getting meaningful PT at the University of Maryland, people were still saying that they couldn't think of who could win the gold medal instead of the U.S.'s talent-laden roster. The Lithuanians? How could they beat us twice? The game was close, and we'd figure out a way to close them out in a medal-round game. Spain? Weren't they really just a more souped-up version of the Chinese, with Pau Gasol and four guys who toil in anonymity? Ditto for the Argentinians with Manu Ginobli.

In fairness, Team USA played a fine game against Spain in the quarterfinals, beating a cohesive unit with a nice run down the stretch. Perhaps the bloggers, pundits and national beat writers were right, that when the lights got brighter, the U.S. just had too many weapons. The game against Spain leveled the plane -- that was the gist of what they wrote. (Stephen A. Smith guaranteed a gold medal after that performance). Clearly, it was a confidence-building win against a team that hadn't lost a game in the Olympics up until then.

But then came the Argentines, and they boasted an excellent NBA shooting guard in Manu Ginobli, several hulking, very good inside players and a former Division I PG named Pepe Sanchez, who helped make Temple teams outstanding as John Chaney's coach on the floor about 5 years ago (and being John Chaney's coach on the floor is one of the toughest jobs in college basketball, and Pepe was about as good as it gets). They were the third team, the true answer to the question of who else could be Team USA besides Puerto Rico and Lithuania. And, in doing so, they put themselves in a final against an over-achieving Italian team that everyone said didn't have the talent of the others, and the Argentines won the gold medal game by 15 points. To Team USA's credit, they gave a great effort in the bronze-medal game and won it, refusing to let the Lithuanians beat them twice.

So how do we deal with all of the thoughts, all of the emotions?

First, you're happy for Team Argentina because up until their win and the win of their men's soccer team in its gold medal game, Argentina hadn't won a gold medal in 52 years (that's many military juntas and governments ago). You're happy for Manu Ginobli and Pepe Sanchez, happy for a team that played within itself and well together, happy for an underdog, because America is all about giving the underdog a chance.

Second, you're disappointed in USA Basketball. For whatever reason, they failed big-time in stocking a team of players that could win "international basketball", a game that is significantly different from the NBA game with its reliance on zone defense, three-point shooting and very physical play inside (not to mention only 2 referees). They basically believed that if they stocked the team with very talented players and just showed up, the talent would win out. Had the talent had months and months to practice together and pick up some of the nuances of the international game, maybe they would have been proved right. But the talent was unable (and sometimes unwilling) to mesh within the short period of time they had, and they looked more like a CBA quarterfinalist at times than a team with NBA stars on it.

Third, you're disappointed in Team USA and for Coach Larry Brown and the team members. Why? Because you rooted for the team, a team which has established such a high standard of excellence over the years that to bring home anything but the gold would be a major disappointment. These guys didn't give their best effort, but it wasn't like they wanted to lose. It might have been that their outlook going into the Olympics was all wrong, and that they didn't mentally prepare themselves for how hard this would be. Clearly, something was off in their preparation, and now they return to the U.S. with a legacy of failing to have upheld the high standard. I am sure they are not happy about that.

Fourth, I am proud that Team USA won a medal (many had predicted that they would get shut out, again, perhaps, because they wanted some sort of lesson to be taught). We have become such a front-running society that we in the U.S. only want to honor those who win the gold (except perhaps Paul Hamm), and we quickly put the "only" tag on any other form of medal. But in watching the games, you can see the emotion that many have shown in winning any medal after so many years of hard work, from an Australian platform diver who took the silver last night to a Nigerian relay team to a woman long jumper from India). Forget the insulting ad campaign, "you don't win the silver, you lose the gold" from many years ago, as many of us have never done anything to come close to getting into an Olympic field let alone have a shot at a medal in the things we do. The bottom line is that getting a medal is an accomplishment, regardless of the circumstances. To say anything else would be to demean the competition, and given what the Argentines have shown, that wouldn't be fair at all.

Fifth, if there's a lesson to be learned, there are probably two of them. One, that USA Basketball cannot take international competition for granted any more. Yes, we created the game, and, yes, we are very good at it, but we don't own the competition any more, other countries have developed excellent players, and some of those players are more fundamentally sound than ours. Second, the NBA should work on the quality of its product. These international games were fun to watch. Maybe they didn't produce five ESPN Sports Center highlights per game, they surely provided great drama from an overall group of players who play more for the love of the game than the trappings of an NBA superstar. Basketball is all about choreography of movement and smooth finishes, and we saw a nice blend of those two in many of the games that were played.

While "our" team might not have won, in some way basketball and its future did.

Team USA apologists will lament, point fingers and offer up the explanation that the Argentines didn't win the tournament, that Team USA was the best team, that the Argentines just played a little better, and, that, really, Team USA lost the tournament more than the Argentines won it.

And they would be totally wrong to do so.

The game has changed, and USA Basketball would be foolish not to change with it. (Ditto the NBA).

Congratulations, Argentina, for a fine, championship-worthy effort.

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