I’ve been meaning to comment on Michael Sokolove’s recent essay on USA basketball. Titled “One Team, Indivisible?”, Sokolove’s August
20 article in the Times’ Sunday magazine continues the long-standing
plaint about the decline of USA basketball, and argues that that
decline is, in fact, a larger story about declining national character.
I have taken issue with Sokolove’s arguments about the decline of basketball in America before (http://journals.aol.com/sportsmediaguy/SportsMediaReview/entries/2006/05/26/the-nba-and-fundamentals/103).
He’s so hung up, in my view, on a set of putative character flaws attributable to today’s undisciplined, unmanageable player that he’s unable to process facts that might contradict his outlook.
So it is with USA basketball’s efforts to recapture its place at the top of the hoops world.
Sokolove recounts the “dysfunctional mess” that was the 2004 Olympic team (hard to argue with that) and says that the core problem is clear:
“our best male athletes have regressed as team players – as teammates. A couple of decades of free agency and lavish salaries freed players from the grips of owners but also unbound them from one another. When you play primarily for yourself, and when your most important relationships are with your agent and your shoe company rep, the concept of playing for your country is pretty abstract.”
Sokolove also says that Team USA shares this sense of decline:
“the new approach of USA basketball acknowledges that the ethos drilled into previous generations of American players – pass to a teammate who has a better shot, move without the ball – must be taught remedially.”
It’s a compelling story – of greed and selfishness trumping sacrifice and togetherness. It’s a favorite variant on the larger theme of sport as metaphor for cultural decline.
And it squares poorly with the facts of the matter when it comes to USA basketball over the past twenty years.
In 1988, a team of US college players managed only a bronze medal at the Seoul Olympics. Coach John Thompson diagnosed that team’s problem succinctly at the time: the jump-shooter in the United States had “gone the way of the Buffalo.” It’s not clear that the decline of jump-shooting is itself a sign of cultural decline – jump-shooting is, in some ways, the most selfish, least patient, offensive act in basketball. In any event, it was becoming clear by 1988 that countries like the Soviet Union, with deep pools of mature talent could now beat the US collegians.
That fact, combined with David Stern’s global vision and the erosion of the final vestiges of amateurism from the Olympic games begat the Dream Team. Sokolove praises the 1992 team as a “seamless mesh of skill, creativity, improvisation and intuitive teamwork.” But, everything Sokolove says about free agency, agents and shoe reps was true of the 1992 team. In fact, you could fairly argue that the 1992 invented the modern era of money, shoe rep and endorsement-driven basketball – the team’s star, Michael Jordan being the most obvious example.
Neither that fact, nor the 1992 team’s notoriously boorish behavior on and off the court that year (OK, Charles Barkley’s notoriously boorish behavior) was irrelevant in the face of one overwhelming truth: the talent on the 1992 squad was vastly superior to that of any other country in the world at that time. A unique set of circumstances, including the incredible convergence of Magic, Michael and Larry in a single basketball cohort, plus the novelty of the 1992 team, which ensured that everyone who could would go play, produced the impossible combination of talent on that squad.
But, the subsequent lackluster play of US Olympic teams, including the 2004 group, owes less to the cultural decline that Sokolove insists upon, and more to rather mundane realities. Many of the top stars have declined to play in the past few cycles. Sokolove argues here that playing for country is pretty abstract, but it’s no more so than it was for the 1992 players. As noted above, it was surely the novelty of that team that made it appealing, more than some patriotic duty motivated by a presumptively different set of values that pushed the dream-teamers to play in Barcelona. Furthermore, if cultural decline is responsible for our recent poor showings, it ought to follow that even a fully-loaded squad with Garnett, Shaq, Kobe, and Kidd would not have won in 2004. As I have said before – I think you have to be blind or hopelessly biased to make that argument.
Finally, even looking at the box scores in 2004 suggests that what Thompson worried about in 1988 was true in 2004: the team just couldn’t shoot.
In the preliminary round loss to Puerto Rico that laid bare the team’s flaws, USA shot less than forty percent. But, even in that game, the USA had the same number of assists as the Puerto Ricans, despite converting fewer field goals. USA had four more turnovers (22 to 18) – not a significant difference and not nearly enough to account for a 19-point loss. The Americans also killed the Puerto Ricans on the boards. When you’re not trying to denigrate a team’s character, rebounding is normally understood to be one of the surest signs of it – a measure of a player (and team’s) willingness to get down and “dirty” to do the ‘blue-collar” work that isn’t glamorous but helps a team win.
Furthermore, while Sokolove decries the “shoot—first” point guards Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury, one of the noteworthy facts of the 2004 Olympics was how little Marbury shot in certain games – in the loss to Puerto Rico, for example, he shot just five times. But that fact, again, squares poorly with the satisfying narrative of selfishness and decline.
Puerto Rico didn’t necessarily play more selfless ball, and they were not much more careful with the rock than were the Americans. They did one thing demonstrably better – nail their outside shots. Call that what you want – an obvious sign of superior character it ain’t.
In the loss to Lithuania, the Americans had 11 assists against 13 turnovers – not an inspiring total. But, the victorious, presumably more selfless Lithuanians – they had seven assists and 20 turnovers. That is not a profile of a team playing in perfect seamless harmony with one another. That is consistent with a team on which every player, big men included, is willing to foist up jump shots, enough of which went in to ensure victory.
The loss to the Argentinians in the medal round was a clear instance of a team playing superior all around ball, at the end of two weeks in which endless bickering and terrible roster management by Larry Brown, plus the team’s inability to throw a jump-shot in the ocean, took its toll.
But, if the flaws in USA basketball are so deeply rooted in a flawed culture, it begs the question: how could things get turned around so quickly? Sokolove wants to credit, in advance, the approach of USA basketball with, in effect, treating the players like children as the only way to whip them into shape. But, of course, those children have to agree to the more rigorous, three-year commitment to which they are now subject, and Sokolove’s account is unable to explain why this evermore selfish, greedy, money-driven generation of players – headlined by LeBron, ‘Melo and Wade – has proven so willing to make the commitment. As an aside, had Brown actually let those three play real minutes in 2004, he might have gotten a different outcome.
It’s also ironic that Sokolove would regard it as a concession to this larger fall from grace that USA basketball would actually have to take seriously its competition. The fact that the team has to work and plan in order to be successful, as opposed to merely showing up and asserting its physical superiority is, weirdly, taken as a sign of a declining work ethic and a sure sign of cultural decline when it should be an illustration of a team and country that recognizes that, contrary to its dream team past, rolling the balls out and letting ‘em play is no longer good enough.
There are lots of reasons to worry about the country’s future. But, the willingness of the 2006-2008 version of USA basketball, including superstars like the aforementioned triumvirate, to make the effort necessary to match-up with a planet whose basketball prowess has improved dramatically since 1992, isn’t one of them. Unless you’re determined to see it that way.