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I have a plan that will save USA Basketball.
This plan won't guarantee that we will win gold in men's basketball at the 2008 Olympics, nor does it mean that the team created by this plan would be more talented than the squad that just ended up with the bronze at the World Championship in Saitama, Japan. But it would nonetheless save USA Basketball, and it would improve society as a whole (not by much, but certainly more than the premise of sending 12 millionaires across the globe to play in a tournament in which any loss is viewed as a complete failure).
My plan is founded on a collection of five truths. These five (seemingly unconnected) truths are as follows:
(1) America has the best basketball players in the world.
(2) America has the best basketball players in the world, and that absolutely does not matter in the context of this argument. To win an international basketball tournament, you need a cohesive, harmonic team.
(3) It is virtually impossible to craft a cohesive, harmonic team by arbitrarily borrowing the best players in the world.
(4) High school graduates are no longer allowed to enter the NBA until they turn 20. If a high school player aspires to play in the NBA, he must attend college.
(5) There are many, many high school basketball players who have the potential to play professional basketball but really have no business attending college.
Here, in short, is the crux of our current predicament: We might not be able to win the Olympic gold medal no matter who we send to Beijing. On the surface, it seems obvious that any U.S. team would be better if it added Kobe and Shaq and KG and Duncan. But there's an ever-growing body of evidence that suggests individual talent plays an inexplicably minor role in this brand of basketball. The U.S. club was beaten by Greece, a team that does not have one NBA player. Greece was then defeated by Spain, a team whose lone NBA star (Pau Gasol) did not play in the gold-medal game. For some interesting, counterintuitive reason, it seems like star power is a disadvantage in this specific idiom.
Moreover, it is becoming more and more difficult to understand why NBA players would aspire to represent America in these no-win scenarios. I suspect Dwyane Wade has a pretty awesome life in Miami -- why would he want to spend three months in Asia, busting his arse in an unwatched tournament where anything less than perfection will be universally viewed as a failure?
When Greece beat the U.S. in the semifinals, it was the greatest day in the history of Greek basketball; in fact, I assume it was the greatest day every member of that Greek squad will ever experience. When Mihalis Kakiouzis is lying on his Athenian deathbed five decades from this summer, he will still be thinking of the day he beat LeBron James in 2006. Who can compete with that kind of emotive intensity? How do you defeat an enemy who's playing for his self-identity? These are the same reasons America won the Revolutionary War but lost in Vietnam -- motivation matters. And it's unreasonable to expect guys like Dwyane and LeBron to care about beating Argentina more than they care about beating each other.
Which brings us to my plan. Right now, there are dozens (maybe hundreds) of wonderful 18- and 19-year-old D-I and juco basketball players who probably should not be in college. They have no interest in academics; they are attending school only because it's the best potential avenue for playing basketball professionally. This is bad for the integrity of the university system (obviously), and it's often bad for the individuals themselves (this desperate dream sets them up for disappointment without preparing them for life). But these are the very kids who could save American basketball. Why don't we select 15 of these non-scholar-athletes and turn them into the U.S. national team? It would seem to solve a lot of problems at once.
The obvious advantage to this system would be structural cohesion: Not only would the entire roster play together for two or three years, but they also wouldn't be playing with anyone else. The problems I noticed with our World Championship squad had little to do with selfishness; the problems seemed more rooted in confusion (it's hard for someone like Chris Bosh or Carmelo Anthony to suddenly "become" a role player for three months, even if they believe it's best for the overall team). The second benefit would be ideological; the creation of this kind of staunchly unprofessional team would lower international expectations. As things stand now, the only feeling that would be generated by a gold medal in basketball would be relief. Winning is so expected that it's becoming virtually meaningless. Why not consciously place ourselves in the role of underdog? There is still enough available talent to beat everyone else on the planet.
Moreover, this program would be great for the (otherwise at-risk) kids who make the roster. Here, in five steps, is how this system could be built:
(1) Find an available coach who adores discipline and fundamentals (my suggestion is John Chaney). Leading this team would become his singular, full-time job.
(2) Conduct an open tryout for anyone under the age of 20 who is either (a) deemed academically ineligible by the NCAA or (b) honest enough to admit they're not interested in faking their way through Organic Chemistry 201.
(3) Pick 15 players who would rather die in an Iraqi dungeon than lose to the likes of Puerto Rico. Hide them away in some place like Colorado Springs, Colo., and make them practice six hours a day. Provide meals and housing. Give them enough spending money to buy PlayStations and Blizzards, but not enough to buy handguns or Escalades. Put their faces on Wheaties boxes and sell them as patriotic heroes. They will love it. Being famous at the age of 18 is better than being a millionaire when you're 28.
(4) When they're not being schooled on how to run the weave like the 1989 Princeton Tigers, outside academic advisors would teach these kids practical life lessons they could actually use as adults (i.e., how to balance a checkbook, how to read a contract, why there is a fiduciary downside to getting multiple girls pregnant, et al).
(5) Have this national team play barnstorming games around the world. During NBA All-Star weekend, they could serve as the opponents for the Rookie Game; on Sunday night during the Final Four, they could play a nationally televised exhibition against whoever won the NIT championship. They could play random games in Europe and China. They could challenge the Globetrotters, for all I care. But here is the thing: THEY WOULD ALWAYS BE PLAYING TOGETHER. Always. And then -- after they unexpectedly win the gold (or after they valiantly lose) -- they could declare themselves eligible for the NBA (or the CBA) draft. And unlike most of their peers, they'd actually understand why basketball is a team game.
Now, am I 100 percent sure this is feasible (or even legal)?
But do you have a better idea? Because what we're doing now certainly isn't the answer.
Chuck Klosterman, whose latest book is "Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas", is a columnist for Esquire and a regular contributor to Page 2.