From September 3, 2006: Team USA–making (some of) us proud

On the John

Team USA—making (some of) us proud

Originally completed September 3, 2006

Team USA, 2006
Team USA, 2006

The United States men’s basketball team finished a disappointing third in the FIBA games in Japan, losing to eventual runner-up and nearly NBA talent-free Greece in the semifinal match before defeating fellow disappointment Argentina in the three-four game.

Strike that.

The United States men’s basketball team won the bronze medal in the FIBA games in Japan, going 7-1 in the tournament and defeating the reigning gold medal winning team from Argentina to capture the bronze while restoring pride to Team USA basketball.

Ah, much better.

The bronze medal. We won the bronze medal. We won it. And yet…grief. Flack. Complaining.

Embarrassment.

Yes, we lost to Greece, a team with no current NBA players, as our media was ever-so-quick to remind us. We should be embarrassed! Melo, LeBron, D-Wade—embarrassed! Brand, Bosh, Howard—embarrassed! Colangelo, Coach K and his staff—embarrassed!

Not me. I feel great.

For the first time since 1996, (maybe for the first time since 1992), the U.S. fielded a men’s basketball team that was captivating, exciting, and most importantly, excited, as in excited to Be There, as in excited to represent America, our country. Not that I can slam the previous teams for not being excited. Unlike for runners, swimmers, skaters, and other athletes, the Olympics are not the pinnacle for basketball players, and certainly not for American basketball players. Those other guys only get to be stars once every two or four years, and only for weeks at a time. Our guys are stars, all the livelong. So it’s not surprising that the teams that represented us in 2000, 2002, and 2004 were less-than-thrilled to be doing so, and I don’t really hold it against them…

…but damn! Don’t it feel good to watch these Americans?

The criticism that this team has taken for winning—winning—the bronze has been inexcusable. All we’ve heard over the past six years is that Team USA is made up of whining, overpaid superstars who play without passion and who enter the games with a sense of entitlement. The world has caught up to the U.S…they’re not afraid of us anymore…the international game is a different game, and the U.S. can no longer expect to patch together a gold medal team.

In steps Jerry Colangelo, who decides that from now on, things will be different. He announces that any player who wishes to play for the U.S. will have to make a three-year commitment, meaning that he will play in the 2006 World Games and the 2008 Olympic Games. He selects Mike Krzyzewski as head coach, and he hand picks the players, 25 guys who agree to go into an Olympic training camp and agree to play hard even though they know that 13 of them will not make the team. And yes, Colangelo comprises the team out of NBA players…of course he does. If you are one of the best 25 basketball players in America, then you are in (or, in the case of Greg Oden, will be in) the NBA.

So yes, we once again fielded a team of NBA stars. Who else would we send out there? Duke? Oak Hill Academy?

But these guys were different, are different, and over the course of the games in Japan they proved just that. They played hard, they played well, they represented our country with passion and good will, and they accepted the burden of changing the face of Team USA basketball.

And then, yes, they lost to Greece. And the complaints and voices of disappointment came spewing out in all directions. Not only did these guys not bring home the gold, but they lost to a team with no NBA stars? How could they let that happen?

Boy, there’s just no pleasing some people.

Are these critics insane? Are they jerks? Are they prejudiced? What gives? You want to talk about embarrassment? This criticism is embarrassing. It is ugly, and angry, and grating. In fact, it is the exact kind of pompous sense of entitlement that Colangelo and co. were out to eliminate…and they did, yet not from the media, not from the fans.

Not from America.

Sure, we said that we don’t want a team full of whining NBA stars, but hell, we damn sure don’t want to lose to a team without them…

So, yes, dear God! They lost to Greece. And did they mope? Did they complain? Did they hang their heads and pack it in? Nope. They went out the very next day, defeated Argentina, and brought home the bronze. Brought it home. Won it. Won it for themselves, certainly, but also for us.

This is victory. This is not the same third place finish of 2004. Team USA is now operating on a different plateau, and this third place finish reflects that. It is the difference between a size 10 in boys and a size 10 in men. It is the difference between losing a game by 30 and losing a game by 3. And yes, there are problems. It is clear that our fundamentals are, sadly, not up to snuff with the rest of the world. So this team—our team—goes back to their NBA lives, and they work on their fundamentals. Why? Because they Get It now. Because if you watched this team for even one possession, you know that they understand what is At Stake. They understand fully what they need to do to win the gold, but more importantly, they understand what they need to do to compete.

And that’s the key. In the past, the goal has been to win. It hasn’t been about representing our country. It has been about representing themselves. It has been about, well, about not being embarrassed. But embarrassment does not come from losing. It comes from losing without honor. It comes from losing out of selfishness. It comes from losing when you believed whole-heartedly that you deserved to win, not because of what you did or how you did it, but because of who you were.

That was Team USA of old. Victories became joyless, because they weren’t competing for a medal; they were collecting a birthright. And when that birthright was no longer handed to them, well, that’s where the embarrassment came from.

Not these guys. They came to Japan to compete, and that’s what they did. And when they set foot on the court in Beijing in 2008, they will be a team, one with a shared experience of failure, one that has humbled itself by accepting the realities of the international game and sculpting themselves to best fit that mold, one that has remained focused on a singular goal for three years. And I can guarantee you that when that moment arrives, this team will make us all proud. Team USA, still packed full of the supreme athleticism, skill, and improvisational spirit that Americans bring to the game, will also be full of heart, determination, dedication, and pride. Represent.

I’m a fan.

Are you?

Copyright 2006, jm silverstein

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