Wake up, USA Basketball

Updated: August 16, 2004, 10:30 AM ET
By Ric Bucher | ESPN the Magazine

Allen Iverson accurately referred to the Olympic tuneup loss to Italy on Tuesday as a "wake-up call." Where he went wrong is suggesting the alarm just went off, when in fact it is the same one that has been ringing for years now. The NBA and USA Basketball simply have elected to keep hitting the snooze button.

Lamar Odom and Larry Brown
Lamar Odom and his fellow NBA stars have less than three weeks to prepare for the Olympics.
As anybody who does that routinely can attest, it only postpones the inevitable -- which is getting up and doing whatever it is you stole another eight minutes of slumber to avoid.

The job at hand, in this case, is to overhaul the method of selecting and building the U.S. national team. Assembling the best available and willing NBA stars, having them train for a couple of weeks and then expecting dominance has gone beyond unrealistic. It has now crossed over into delusional.

A few fundamental facts:

  • The NBA and international games are radically different, now more than ever.

  • The athletic superiority of our best players no longer trumps the chemistry and teamwork of national teams who have played together for years.

  • Almost every NBA star who has played internationally has been injured during competition or sustained a fatigue-induced setback the following NBA season.

  • Other countries are motivated to play us but no longer intimidated.

  • None of the above is going to reverse itself.

    As I see it, that leaves us with one of two choices:

  • Continue the current system and live with the disappointment of watching some, but not all, of our best play at a disadvantage.

  • Build a true national team program with non-NBA players and develop the same chemistry and teamwork that is not only killing our medal chances but that many basketball experts and fans believe needs to be reintroduced to the American game at every level.

    Where's the honor in the first choice, which means forcing our best NBA players to choose between being less effective at their primary job -- playing in the NBA -- or being labelled unpatriotic? It's a flawed approach because if a great player says no, then protocol requires you to ask the next-best player, even if he's not exactly what you need. Being named to an Olympic team has become a way of acknowledging up-and-coming players with a relatively clean record. It's an NBA vehicle because the NBA pays a big part of the freight. We can't afford to do that anymore. Either invite Rasheed Wallace -- who would be devastatingly effective in the international game -- and Chris Webber or pick players based on their suitability for the international game.

    What's the worst that could happen? We disgrace ourselves? Aren't we doing that, to a certain extent, with various displays of frustration? Or we lose? That we're doing to the fullest extent, finishing sixth in the 2002 World Championships and destined for an equally disappointing fate this summer in the Olympics, if warm-up games against Italy and Germany are any indication. Based on the bronze the '98 team won in the World Championships with nary an NBA player -- thanks to the owners' lockout -- we'd be no less competitive than we are right now.

    Nor is this current downturn a quirk of fate or momentary lapse. This is where we are. Don't blame the players who are there or the ones who opted not to go, either. I'm tired of hearing how those who withdrew are lazy or unpatriotic. No, they're not. I don't know of any NBA player who wouldn't love to wear "USA" on his chest and experience all that comes with being an Olympian. It gives every one of them the same rush you get thinking about it. But imagine if you knew by going you were putting at risk your ability to do your regular job, the one your employer pays you to do, the one that feeds your family. And what if you already had taken that risk once and paid the price? Would you still blindly say, "I don't care, screw my employer and my family, I'm going?" I wouldn't talk badly about you if you did, but I'm not sure I'd find virtue in that.

    The evidence accumulated since we started sending our NBA superstars 14 years ago is irrefutable: play in the summer, count on getting hurt either then or during the subsequent NBA season. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone and Chris Mullin (to name a few) all experienced it. So have some of the players who opted not to go. A body, no matter how well-conditioned, breaks down when asked to play 90-plus NBA games -- and our stars are all playing that much, counting the playoffs -- then go through the intense hurry-and-get-to-know-each-other Team USA workouts, then play a dozen games in a 2½-week span, then play another 90-plus NBA games. And that's just the physical wear and tear. What's worse is the mental grind. Anything other than gold and 20-point victories is considered a disappointment. For evidence of how disabling and joyless that can be, see this year's Lakers.

    If anybody understands all this, it's new Lakers coach Rudy Tomjanovich, who directed both the bronze-medal team in '98 and the gold-medal winners in the 2000 Olympics. "The No. 1 thing is it's a different game, but you are still the favorite," he says. "In the back of your mind, you're thinking, 'Hey, those guys are getting better. What if ...' The 'what if' can really put some tension in your game. I felt relief getting through it in 2000. I don't know if I would do it again."

    It's not as if the players who lost to Italy and narrowly beat Germany -- which didn't qualify for the Olympics -- aren't trying or don't care. They simply look as hesitant, defensively, as the team in the World Championships two years ago did. It's not because they can't play better defense or the team needs better individual defenders. Team D requires time. Together. And that's something that is impossible to get using NBA players.

    Coach Larry Brown said this year's team is "thinking rather than reacting," which is perfectly understandable. Anybody would, being asked to play a version of basketball that is significantly different than they play 98 percent of the time. There is no post play and precious little room to penetrate because there is no rule against camping your entire team in the lane. The shorter three-point line and trapezoidal lane change both offensive and defensive spacing and principles. You can beat the hell out of your man on the perimeter but can't touch him around the basket, a rule interpretation that directly opposes how the NBA game is called.

    Even now that the international shot clock is 24 seconds, same as the NBA, international offenses are designed to use every second. It doesn't sound like much, but when you're playing with unfamiliar teammates against unfamiliar offenses that force you to make more collective team-defense decisions than you're used to, it opens the door to more mistakes. Watching some guy who couldn't survive five minutes in the NBA hitting backdoor layups or popping in 15-foot jumpers to beat the shot clock is only going to add to the frustration, which only increases the chance for more mistakes.

    "When the game gets tough, that's when our guys go to their strength, which is explode through the paint and make something creative happen and that opportunity just isn't there in the international game," Tomjanovich says. "They just build a wall of bodies down there."

    (For the record, none of this means the international game is better than the NBA version. Some grizzled NBA hater who misses the age of short shorts and rolling hook shots might tell you that, but no foreign player or coach will. The NBA is making a mint off beaming its games all over the world because it provides an entertainment value they can't get at home. Foreign players and coaches are also studying what we do and incorporating it with their own styles. Trust me, no one is dying to watch the Serbs or Lithuanians or Argentines play Hoosiers-style basketball every night. They watch out of pride and loyalty. You can appreciate a two-handed chest pass or textbook 15-footer or well-timed backdoor cut, but you pay for AI's inimitable crossover and Kobe's no-look reverse jams and Shaq's monster dunks. The challenge facing the NBA is to incorporate the unbelievable creativity and athletic feats into team basketball. It's not going to happen over night, but the Pistons winning the championship was a step in the right direction. In any case, that's an entirely different column.)

    Why not build a national team that trains and plays together at various times year round? ... You don't think you could find a composition of players from the NBDL and CBA who wouldn't be happy to get a $50K supplement to their incomes?
    So why not build a national team that trains and plays together at various times year round? Why not recruit the team-concept shooters you need to open up those international zones. A few might even find their way into the NBA eventually, upgrading the shooting and team play there as well. You don't think you could find a composition of players from the NBDL and CBA who wouldn't be happy to get a $50K supplement to their incomes to play an international schedule of 20 games and train together for six to eight weeks before the Olympics or World Championships? The '98 team was made up of exactly those kind of players and they did it for a lot less cash than that. One, Brad Miller, parlayed that exposure into his start in the NBA.

    One difference then, though, was that Tomjanovich had four-a-days to sift through as many players as possible before selecting his squad. He then built a team that could be greater than the sum of its parts. No other criteria was involved, such as, oh say, having players whose names would sell jerseys or using it as a perk.

    "Chemistry is always the key," Tomjanovich says. "Time would really help the continuity and chemistry and that magic that happens when guys have been together for a while. I just don't know if we're going to get that time."

    I know -- you're not. Not using NBA players. But imagine if you selected a team as carefully as the committee did in '98. Imagine, then, if you gave that team a couple of months, rather than a couple of weeks, to prepare. Why, you'd be looking at a gold-medal contending team. Along with a new pool of NBA talent. And no more ringing alarm clock.

    Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds," published by Miramax and available in bookstores beginning Sept. 29. E-mail him at ric.bucher@espn3.com (he can't answer every e-mail -- he supposedly wants a life -- but will occasionally select a top five and answer them in his column). Also, click here to send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

    Ric Bucher

    NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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