Does anything really matter?
IT’S A CLASSIC damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario. The US Men’s Olympic basketball team traipses — swaggers? — into London with a chip on its shoulder in the shape of the original Dream Team. There are eleven other men’s national basketball squads headed to these Games of the XXX Olympiad too, of course, but nobody’s watching them with anything like the level of scrutiny trained on this American group who, like every US team since those ’92 Barcelona games, toils in the imposing shadow of what many have termed the greatest sports team ever assembled. And this team, like all the others since that first Olympic squad of NBA superstars, simply can’t win, no matter if they win it all.
Consider the possible outcomes.
The first scenario is probably the stuff of the players’ nightmares. It involves clashes of ego, or simply an inability, on the part of all these superstars, to find themselves on the same page. They don’t click. They fail to “gel,” or “never fully buy into” Coach K’s system. They struggle past France, defeat Nigeria handily, but unsmilingly. Get chippy with the Tunisians. Become examples of how not to act on the Olympic stage. Take bad fouls. Show too much emotion. Win, but narrowly. Later, get photographed at inopportune moments in disreputable London establishments, against the advice of the team’s handlers. Stay out late. Miss team meetings, sleepwalk through practices. Then get bounced, awkwardly, humiliatingly, by Argentina, and face a ferocious, bloodthirsty media at the post-game presser. Leave London immediately, arrive back in the States on separate flights. Appear moody when asked about the loss. Get used to fielding the question, “What went wrong in London?” Take shots at other players. Become, amid terrible ignominy, a notorious group, derided, the target of late-night opening monologues. Inspire great hand-wringing on the part of both the NBA and the US Olympic braintrust about how to move forward. Have the name “USA basketball” become synonymous with a failure to meet expectations.
Under this scenario, the spectre of the Dream Team looms especially large for the stark contrast between their dazzling success and 2012′s grotesque failure. “How could a team of such superstars fail to bring home gold?” the call-in shows will ask. Remember the Canadian hockey team returning empty handed from Nagano? This will be worse.
The second and far more likely scenario plays out like this: Team USA runs the table, using the soft opening round gauntlet of France-Nigeria-Tunisia as a glorified tune up. Some razzle-dazzle for the Brit crowds, doing their bit to help spread the NBA product to the UK; Kobe, Durant, and Westbrook staging their own in-game dunk contests. LeBron, still giddy from his first Finals victory, all smiles for the world’s cameras. Only once they hit Lithuania and Argentina (who gave them some trouble in exhibition play) do the point differentials fall – from 20 or 30 to merely a dozen or so. They emerge from their group and continue to roll through the knock-outs. Their games become gaudy carnivals of flash and swag, the place to be at these London games for the excitement they promise, the excess, the contact high of pure, untarnished success. Eventually they defeat someone – Spain? — in the gold medal game. They are Olympic champions. Kobe is hung with still more hardware. LeBron achieves the Sidney Crosby-like double victory. Anthony Davis tastes global fame before he takes his first opening tip in the Association.
And here is where the rub becomes most obvious, for instead of being celebrated and commended for their convincing victory, these Olympians are met with shrugs. “So what?” the public asks. “You’re superstars. The best ball players on the planet. Of course you beat Nigeria. Of course you beat Argentina. What else did you expect?” And worse: “The Dream Team made it look easier.”
Of course the truth is that there is no way to measure up to ’92, no matter how good this or any successive team of NBAers prove to be. We have written and accepted and chiseled in monumental stone the narrative which crowns them the greatest team ever assembled. Nothing – nothing – will change that. The realities, though captured on video and in uncountable written accounts, nevertheless occupy a spot in history shrouded in a golden haze. Doubting voices are drowned out by laudatory chatter. They were amazing. You should have seen them.
Laettner, The Admiral, Ewing, Bird, Pippen, Jordan, Drexler, The Mailman, Stockton, Barkley, Mullin, Magic
Melo, Kobe, Tyson, Anthony Davis, Durant, Harden, Iguodala, LeBron, Kevin Love, CP3, Westbrook, Deron
I love basketball. I love the NBA and the guys who play in it. The Olympic squad is a fun little quadrennial exercise in what if, a chance to see if you can guess who the sport’s insiders believe to be the 12 best players in the game. A super-All-Star team composed of the best from both NBA conferences. A basketball Voltron that jokes around and Instagrams pictures of its superstar members sleeping on airplanes and wearing silly sunglasses.
It goes without saying that the Olympic matches themselves are often boring, lopsided affairs that are over before they start, except those few which prove to be competitive, and so threaten an established order I don’t particularly care to see overturned. I want to believe these guys are the best ballers on Earth. It justifies the time I spend watching them during the regular season. There’s also such an uneasiness to the whole affair, a terrible sense of despair I feel with and on behalf of the players when they aren’t performing as expected. It’s like a mounting existential dread that makes me squirm and cringe. Hardly an enjoyable viewing experience.
So here’s what I’m proposing: a return to amateurism. Let the NBA guys stay home and enjoy their summer. Bring back the NCAA guys, the pre-draft stars of college basketball, the names we haven’t heard or have heard but haven’t seen play. Kids with everything to prove. Do it not because of some sanctified and archaic notion of the purity of amateur sport, but because it would make the whole thing more exciting, it would guarantee less predictability. It would restore an excitement to Olympic basketball, make it akin to the Final Four in terms of drama and desperation. It would place it more in line with the majority of the Olympic viewing experience in that it would allow us to cheer on athletes we don’t really know much about. And it would effectively end the Dream Team comparisons.
Unquestionably, the level of international competition has risen steadily since 1992, due in some part to the Team USA’s glamourization of the sport on a global stage. In that sense the Dream Team Victory Tour through Barcelona achieved the second of its two goals (the first was complete and utter domination en route to a gold medal, of course). Both of these two things continue to act against all subsequent iterations of Team USA, since they both make 44-point victories increasingly unlikely. The Dream Team was playing against a very weak field, one totally unprepared for the whupping that was to be unleashed on them, and making that (admittedly stupefyingly great) team appear even better, while simultaneously seeding a planet-wide interest in basketball that would make the competition stiffer for future American squads.
These games roll around every four years and they tantalize with their possibilities (Harden and Deron on the same bench! CP3 lobbing to Durant!), but ultimately deflate, like a tepid blockbuster, no matter how staggering the amount of pyrotechnics deployed in the finale. The memory of the Dream Team shows up to cast a shadow on the whole thing, and the ramifications of either outcome (“damned-if-you-do…”) blot out what should, on the surface of things, be an exciting TV event. And so I am saying (though it pains me a bit to do so) that the time to hit the reset button is now. Blow it all up. Reboot the franchise by re-imagining it. There’s too little to be gained by continuing to ship NBA All-Stars overseas every four years, and too much to lose by failing to do anything. If you love Olympic basketball, you must set Kobe and the boys free. Only then will the ghosts of Barcelona begin to rest easy.