Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Page 2 [Print without images]

Wednesday, August 25, 2004
Updated: August 29, 12:30 PM ET
The haters can't handle the truth

By Jason Whitlock
Special to Page 2

I must've missed the memo -- the memo that went out to the red-blooded American sports public and explains exactly when it became OK to throw patriotism out the window and openly root against a U.S. Olympic team.

Yeah, I didn't get that memo. I'm wondering what was in it. Did it mention Allen Iverson by name? Did it have stipulations about the number of tattoos acceptable on an Olympian? Was there a cornrows clause? Or was the memo just straight and to the point?

Allen Iverson
What's the real reason why so many people are rooting against Iverson and co.?
Americans do not have to support a group of black American millionaires in any endeavor. Despite the hypocritical, rabid patriotism displayed immediately after 9/11, it's perfectly suitable for Americans to despise Team USA Basketball, Allen Iverson and all the other tattooed NBA players representing our country. Yes, these athletes are no more spoiled, whiny and rich than the golfers who fearlessly represent us in the Ryder Cup, but at least Tiger Woods has the good sense not to wear cornrows.

The memo must've read something like that. That's the only explanation for the near-universal hatred of our Olympic basketball team. Oh, you can hide behind a bunch of other excuses. You don't like the NBA style of play (which I don't). You're rooting for the underdogs. Shaq and Kidd and K.G. declined an invitation. The selection committee picked the wrong team.

There are a million excuses, some of which might legitimize a teeny bit of hostility toward USA Basketball. But there's no reasonable justification for the out-and-out hatred of Larry Brown's squad. There's no reasonable justification for the sheer delight that many red-blooded, patriotic Americans are taking from the USA's struggles.

In a poll on Page 2's Daily Quickie on Monday, 54.1 percent of the approximately 20,000 respondents said they wanted to see the USA team lose, and another 19.9 percent said they "kind of" would like to see it lose. I've sat on my radio show the past two weeks and listened to alleged patriot after patriot bitch about and shred Team USA and openly admit they want the team to lose. One guy, who identified himself as a former member of the American military, said he hates Team USA because the team doesn't "represent the America he fell in love with." I asked him to describe the America he fell in love with, and he said, "it was a country you could walk the streets without worrying about being mugged."

So there once was a time when a man or woman could walk the streets without worrying about a wild gang of NBA players whacking them over the head with a bottle and taking their wallet or purse? That must've been a glorious time, because you can hardly go anywhere these days without looking over your shoulder wondering whether Tim Duncan or Stephon Marbury is stalking you. I know it's dangerous to make too much of the sentiments expressed by talk-radio callers. But they speak for somebody. Monday evening I wore my Team USA jersey to the Rams-Chiefs game. As I walked to the stadium, people laughed at me and my jersey and several people made disparaging comments about our basketball team.

Because this team had to settle for the bronze medal Saturday, I half-expect Americans to spit on Iverson, Duncan, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony at the airport. We haven't fielded a team this unpopular at home since Johnson and Nixon sent Team USA into Vietnam.

This is ridiculous, and it hints at a much larger issue.

Someone call Johnnie Cochran and have him send over "The Card" -- the race one.

This team is being discussed unfairly in the media and being treated unfairly by American sports fans. There's a lot of convenient denial going on. No one wants to deal with the truth because they're having too much fun blasting a bunch of black millionaires for being lazy, unpatriotic and stupid. With the exception of adding the word "millionaires," this is a very familiar tune.

It's just more denial. The truth -- and what needs to be discussed -- is that African-American basketball players no longer have a lock on the game. The rest of the world has caught up, at warp speed. The game has been exported and redefined in superior fashion.

Dirk Nowitzki
Europeans like Dirk Nowitzki are playing a new brand of basketball -- very successfully.
Go ask the folks up in Canada what the Soviets did to the game of hockey. Don Cherry can tell you all about the Red Army team whipping Canadian and NHL fannies on bigger rinks with faster, more creative skaters. It was 1972, and Team Canada -- the best Canadian-born NHL players formed into a Dream Team -- took on the Soviet Union team, which had pretty much dominated international play since 1954. It was called the Summit Series -- eight games between the world's two hockey powers.

The Soviets won the first game 7-3 and led the series 3-1-1 before the Canadians rallied to win the last three games -- all by one goal -- to win the series. Paul Henderson scored a goal with 34 seconds to play in Game 8, or the series would've ended in a tie. One of the reasons Team Canada eventually prevailed is that the bigger, stronger Canadians began to resort to cheap shots and thuggery on the ice. Several Canadian players later admitted they were embarrassed by what they had to do to sneak past the quicker Soviets. A Canadian newspaperman had to eat his entire newspaper because he'd promised to do it if Phil Esposito, Stan Mikita, Ken Dryden and Co. lost a single game in the series.

Canadians invented hockey in the late 1800s, and once dominated it the way African-Americans dominate basketball. Eastern Europeans reinvented the game and made up nearly 70 years of hockey experience on the Canadians in just two decades.

Sound anything like what we're witnessing on the basketball court?

Eastern Europeans introduced finesse, speed and creative passing to hockey. No longer could you just dump the puck into the zone and maul the guy in the corner. You had to play the game. The Canadians weren't stupid and lazy. They were just slow to adjust to a new, superior brand of hockey.

"Back then, we thought our way was the only way to play hockey; and we found out it wasn't," American Ken Morrow, one of the heroes on the 1980 Miracle on Ice Olympic team, told me Wednesday. "The NBA is kind of going through that right now. Hockey went through it in the 1970s and '80s. The NBA should look at what we went through and learn from it."

Morrow, the current director of pro scouting for the New York Islanders, played 10 years in the NHL. He vividly remembers the 1972 Summit Series.

"You talk to people in Canada, and they'll tell you the Summit Series was like a national emergency," Morrow said. "It really shook the heart and soul of the Canadians."

The similarities between hockey and basketball and the impact that international play is having on the games is indisputable. The high rounds of the NHL draft now favor European players. The NHL in the 1970s celebrated the Philadelphia Flyers' Broad Street Bullies approach, which included beating people up. The game was played at a slow, boring, defensive pace. Does that sound anything like today's NBA?

"The skill portion of the game (hockey) is viewed as being superior by the Europeans," Morrow said. "But when it comes to character and heart and competing, it's still the Canadians and the American players. Just look at the top scorers in the NHL the last few years -- seven or eight out of 10 are European."

Doesn't that sound like Dirk Nowitzki vs. Ben Wallace?

The international style of basketball play is superior to the American game, particularly the NBA game. The wide lane, shorter 3-pointer and prevalence of zone defenses limit the effectiveness of the NBA's two-man game. You can't have three guys stand on one side of the court and talk to Spike Lee while your two best players go two-on-two on the other side. It's boring, and it doesn't work in international play.

It's also foolish and arrogant to believe that we can throw a team together that can take on the world in two or three weeks. We can't do it. Even if we had Shaq and Kidd and K.G., our team would need time to prepare. We obviously need role players.
Michael Phelps
Would Michael Phelps have been this excited about the Olympics if he was making millions as a professional swimmer?
What bothers me most are the charges that Iverson and Co. aren't trying and don't care. First and foremost, they do care and they are trying. They're competitors. They know what's at stake. They don't want to be ripped at home.

But do they care about the Olympics the way Michael Phelps does? No. And we shouldn't expect them to. American basketball players don't spend their childhoods dreaming about playing in the Olympics. Their goal is the NBA. For swimmers and track athletes and gymnasts, on the other hand, the Olympics is the pinnacle.

If there was a professional swimming league that would make Phelps filthy rich, I guarantee he'd dream of making that league more than he dreamt of making the Olympic team. Phelps might even turn down a spot on the Olympic team, if it interfered with his professional swimming offseason.

Once every four years, Phelps and Carly Patterson and Justin Gatlin get an opportunity to strike it rich. They go all out. Don't romanticize it. They're chasing money -- endorsement opportunities -- just like the NBA players. Phelps, Patterson and Gatlin might be more cooperative and gracious with the media during the Olympics because they only have to deal with us once every four years. We don't know how they'd react if they were forced to talk to us every day almost year round.

The criticism of USA Basketball is borderline racist, is definitely unsophisticated and exposes a lot of super patriots as hypocrites. Allen Iverson is wearing our jersey -- our red, white and blue -- and playing the game the way we taught him to play it.

We owe Iverson support when he's representing us abroad. Save the hatred for when he's back home skipping Sixers practices and boring us to death playing a two-man game with Glenn Robinson.

Jason Whitlock is a columnist for the Kansas City Star and a regular contributor on ESPN The Magazine's Sunday morning edition of "The Sports Reporters." He also hosts an afternoon radio show, "The Doghouse," on Kansas City's 61 Sports KCSP. He can be reached at ballstate68@aol.com.