Can Team USA restore hoops order?

9/3/2010 - NBA
As the world championship turns, the USA's place in international hoops hangs in the balance. Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

I keep hearing that it doesn't matter. That none of this really counts. Some people, even some who follow the game religiously, try to make you believe these games have no significance. That even if we lose, everything's still all good.

Those people are lying to themselves.

I refuse to tell myself that lie. Not that one. Because I know that what happens to the USA basketball team matters. I know that losing is not an option. Not only that, I know that how the team comes off is of equal importance.

Yet so far, at the midway point of the FIBA World Basketball Championship in Turkey, the USA appears to have been playing with the mentality of a team going into the NCAA tournament: Survive and advance.

Which is exactly what they have done. Yes, they're undefeated (5-0 through the preliminary round), but America's team has not yet done what is necessary to restore its place in the world basketball order. A one-point exhibition-game win against Spain (which played without Pau Gasol and outscored the U.S. by 10 points in the fourth quarter) a week before the tournament started; a two-point victory over Brazil (in a game in which Brazil had two opportunities to win in the final 20 seconds); and a very uninspired first-half performance against the 43rd-ranked team in the world, Tunisia (the U.S. led by only six, 39-33) on Thursday … none of that is the look we want.

More important, it isn't the look we need.

And don't get it twisted. We -- America, and American basketball -- need this. We need this as badly as Obama needs a surge in approval ratings. But some people don't seem to see it that way. That line of thinking goes that since this isn't the Olympics and since there's no Kobe, no D-Wade, no Melo or LeBron or Chris Paul on this team, it doesn't count.

Which is the biggest lie we can tell ourselves about this tournament.

The importance of what happens to the U.S. squad in the world championship now that the elimination rounds are beginning (its next game is against Angola on Monday at 11 a.m., ET, on ESPN2) involves the restoration of a legacy. The Olympic Games alone no longer define international basketball. Some would like to think they do, but that's just another lie to sell to ourselves. The world championship has become much more than a warm-up for the five-ring circus that will be held next in London in 2012.

The Olympic gold medal? Been there; copped that in Beijing. But now what? Now what can the U.S. do to reinforce the message that winning the Olympics in 2008 began? Winning again in London won't be enough. The message has to be sent from Turkey, right now. Our "B-squad" players, the ones on this world championship team, have to prove they can do more than just beat every other team in the world. They have to impose superiority.

It's the factor of fear that's at stake, a fear factor that America lost in the 2006 world championship (a semifinal loss to Greece), in the 2004 Summer Olympics (a semifinal loss to Argentina), in the 2002 world championship (a quarterfinal loss to Yugoslavia and a sixth-place finish on the friendly court of Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis). It can be restored if this U.S. squad separates itself from the rest of the world. But one of the hardest things to do in sports is return fear to the hearts and minds of opponents once they're no longer shook by your mere presence.

Once it's gone, it's almost impossible to get back.

Mike Tyson couldn't do it. Shaq couldn't do it. And Roger Federer and Tiger Woods are finding it very hard to do right now.

Right now, the U.S. -- despite the gold medal in Beijing -- is not even the top-ranked team in the world, according to FIBA. Argentina is. We're No. 2.

The world stopped being afraid of us in basketball a while ago. That, more than anything, has as much to do with our downfall in the global game as anything else.

But the defending world champs, Spain, have already lost twice in Turkey, though they made it through (along with Lithuania and France from their group) to the elimination round. There is a chance for the U.S. to make the statement the rest of the way.

This U.S. team is young, true, but it's good, a borderline whip. From Kevin Durant to Kevin Love, they are stacked like Angel Lola Luv. The only team that should beat them is themselves.

Is it fair to judge a team (or person or group) by the standards they create themselves? The answer in this case is "Yes." All's fair in love and international basketball.

So this tournament is as important as the Olympics were two years ago. Still, many people, many Americans, refuse to acknowledge that. The world championship is a forum for us to prove that the era in which the rest of the world caught up with us -- that period between 1994 and 2008 -- is over. Never to return.

Because again, this is about dominance as much as it is about winning. Or at least that's what it should be about. It isn't our elite against the world; it's our second unit against the world. And that actually can mean more.

It's just an easy out to say these games don't really mean anything. How we ball has to mean something, even if we didn't send an exaggerated version of the Miami Heat to Istanbul.

Now, I'm not saying that the rest of the games for the U.S. team should or will be easy. I'm not even saying that this team is so good that it can't (or won't) lose. What I am saying is we can't continue to tell ourselves that it just doesn't matter if we don't win.

Apathy. So not the answer.

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.