“You can sense the desperation as the U.S picks up its defense,” TV commentator and former Olympian Doug Collins said as the U.S. Olympic basketball team cut a 22-point deficit to 8 before succumbing to lowly Puerto Rico 92-73 in their opening round game. Collins inadvertently got to the heart of what ails this team. They began to put in a defensive effort only after the situation turned desperate. But this team ought to have been “desperately hungry before the game even started, as it had already suffered an embarrassing blow-out loss to the Italian team in pre-Olympic play.
The NBA professionals were outplayed in every phase of the game. Puerto Rico deployed deft passing, constant movement on offense, pure shooting from the perimeter, and a zone defense that forced the U.S. to shoot from outside, where the team shot a ghastly 3 of 24 from the 3-point line, a 3-point line that is significantly closer to the basket than is the NBA line. Playing as if they regretted sacrificing part of their precious summer vacation to play in the Olympics, the U.S. team all but gave the game away, committing nearly as many turnovers (22) as field goals (26).
Speaking of Puerto Rico, U.S. Olympian and perhaps its biggest NBA star, Allen Iverson, said, “They play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.” That’s a comment the entire NBA ought to take to heart.
Although this loss does not eliminate the U.S. team from gold medal contention, it is a big defeat. There have only been two other losses by the men’s basketball team in Olympic competition history, the tragic loss to the Soviet Union in 1972, in which the officials kept resetting the clock and giving the Soviets a chance to win until they finally made a winning shot. I still recall the image of a battered Doug Collins, slammed by a Soviet player into the base of the basket, getting up to shoot his free throws. Then in 1988, the American team lost in medal competition and settled for the bronze, in what was to be the last time the U.S fielded a purely amateur team in the Olympics. The first professional team to play was in 1992, the so-called Dream Team, a kind of swan song for the great players of the 1980s, Bird, Magic, Barkley, Ewing, and a guy named Jordan.
That team was a delight to watch. Stars with an impressive collection of championship and MVP trophies fused readily into a team where everyone was willing to play whatever role was needed to win. That team marked the end, or near end, as Jordan still had a few good years left, of the revival of NBA basketball in the 1980s, the era of the great battles between Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics. With a badly ailing back that would soon force him into retirement, Bird still dove for lose balls in games where the U.S. team was never really threatened by any opponent. In response to a question about whether there would ever be another Dream Team, Bird quipped, “No, because I won’t be on it.” That’s a funny line, in part because Bird and other players of his era had what today’s players seem utterly to lack: a sense of perspective, even irony, about the willingness of fans to pay top dollar to see a bunch of guys throw a ball through a ten-foot hoop.
Professional basketball has been in serious decline for years, as the game has degraded into a form of rugby and stars have become notorious for off-court behavior. The best thing about the past year in the NBA was the way Larry Brown, coach of the current Olympic team, took an unheralded Detroit team to the finals, where no one gave them a chance to win more than two games against the dominant Lakers. But the Lakers-Detroit series provided a basketball lesson to warm the hearts of every serious high-school coach: team play, hard work, and defense-win championships. What was most astonishing about the series was not that the inflated egos of the Lakers superstars flared yet again, but that a Lakers team coached by Phil Jackson, who is currently tied with former Celtics coach Red Auerbach for most championship rings, actually quit in the last two games in Detroit. They had no desire, no heart, and they deserved to lose. Rarely is justice served so neatly in human life.
Before the Lakers’ demise, in the previous playoff series, televised on TNT, Charles Barkley and his coterie of commentators gushed with admiration at Kobe Bryant’s ability to appear in court in Colorado, where Bryant was on trial for rape, and then fly back to Los Angeles to register another impressive performance on the court. Bryant received the kind of praise one might reserve for someone commuting for hours through heavy traffic in the family station wagon with no air conditioning to visit an ailing parent and then returning to work the night shift, not for someone flying in private jets to and from a rape trial. No intelligent fan could at this point be surprised at the off-court behavior of professional athletes, but it is a novelty of the post-Clinton era that such behavior could be overlooked in a cascade of praise on national TV.
What afflicts the NBA and our current version of the Once-Upon-a-Dream-Team Olympic squad is less behavior off the court than the atrocious performance on the court. A great coach with a deep sense of what it takes to mold a team into a winner, Larry Brown spoke honestly after the Puerto Rico debacle: “I’m humiliated, not for the loss–I can always deal with wins and losses–but I’m disappointed because I had a job to do as a coach, to get us to understand how we’re supposed to play as a team and act as a team, and I don’t think we did that.”