From August 25, 2008: Back to the basics

On the John

Back to the basics

Originally completed August 25, 2008

For Wade, Melo, and LeBron, the Olympic journey has just begun...

I never liked the Redeem Team.

The name, that is, not the team.

That name always smacked of something cheap, as if founder Jerry Colangelo’s sole mission was to reclaim a birthright. If that was in fact his driving goal, so be it. But I like to think he had something deeper in mind, because what I witnessed over these past three years was not a reclamation of gold. It was a commitment to competition.

True competition: that’s what I saw. It began with the roster: 25 players trying out, over half going home. A hard-fought bronze finish in the FIBA Games, Kobe joining the Bron-Melo-Wade captainry in 2007, and then the gold here in 2008.

I say hot damn! Wasn’t this fun? This may have been the single best basketball team I ever watched. Kidd setting the tempo before the young bucks Paul and Williams entered to steady the point; Wade and Kobe flushing the passing lanes; Bron and Melo scoring from the wings, from the baseline, from oh so far in three point land. Coming in, we’d heard it all. All talent, no team. All showmanship, no fundamentals. So we fused talent into team. We locked in defensively so we could be showmen offensively. Too many egos and all-stars, they said. Yet there was Carlos Boozer, a two-time all-star, a 20 and 10 guy, waving towels from the bench and cheering on his teammates while averaging a team-low 10.2 minutes per match.

Of everyone involved, from Colangelo to Coach K to Carmelo, perhaps it was Boozer who best personified this three-year mission. There was no sulking or pouting, no insincere Being-The-Bigger-Man postgame quotes of, “Well, I don’t agree, but I’ll do whatever Coach asks.” Boozer played 42 fewer minutes than did Tayshaun Prince, Prince a role player brought in to play a role, Boozer an all-star brought in to be a mop-up guy, a just-in-case. And every time his teammates came to the bench for a timeout, there was Boozer, offering a high-five and a round of applause.

Don’t get it twisted: this wasn’t Laettner Part II. Boozer could have started at forward for any other team in the games. Instead he gave Bosh, Howard, Anthony, and James an all-star to bang against in practice.

That’s the thing about being a team: some players have to sacrifice. The Bulls were the best not just because Michael and Scottie were in their starting line, but because Kukoc and Kerr were not in someone else’s. Guys make sacrifices. And this USA team was full of ‘em. The veteran Kidd finishing 9th on the team in minutes, the big guys Bosh and Howard 7th and 8th. When the supposedly petulant Anthony spent most of the fourth quarter of the gold medal game watching from the bench, standard anti-NBA, anti-American, anti-young black millionaire thinking would have assumed Anthony to be slouched on his seat with his towel on his head. Instead, his towel was on the floor. Why? Anthony had set it there for his knees, the team’s leading scorer in 2006 too tense and focused to sit still, his hands slapping the floor, his eyes locked in on his teammates as they battled for a win.

If you love basketball, love the flair and style and athleticism that Americans bring to the game, you couldn’t help but love this team. Couldn’t help but love ‘em two years ago in Japan, and certainly not now, not with everything so fluid, so complete. LeBron’s play over these eight games topped anything he’s ever done. Better than the Detroit series, better than the Boston series. There was the invaluable Wade turning himself into the Deion Sanders of the hardwood, picking off outlet passes and starting the break. And the point guard tandem of Paul and Williams was outstanding: 52 assists against only 19 turnovers, an absurd 35 of 38 mark from the line.

James. Anthony. Wade. Bryant. Bosh. Howard. Paul. Williams. Kidd. Redd. Prince. Boozer. Say the names. Take a look. If you watched this team, if you really watched, you came to feel that every player was important. This was a team effort from the get-go, and not just because The Three Year Mission set out to play a more disciplined brand of ball. When Spain took the floor in Beijing, they did so with seven of the same guys who played in Athens four years prior. The Three Year Mission didn’t even return seven from 2006. Still, this core of six along with Boozer (Athens ’04) and Kidd (Sydney ’00) was the best encore of Americans since 1996.

The reason is two-fold. First is depth: no other nation has such a pool of talented basketball players. Team USA’s top five could reasonably be replaced by Garnett, Iverson, McGrady, Pierce, and Stoudemire. Pull Gasol, Calderon, Garbajosa, Navarro, and Fernandez off of Spain and the Spaniards might not even qualify. Those guys have to play for their countries to compete. Our guys can be replaced by maybe 20 others.

Second is displacement: nearly all of the world’s best basketball players are in the NBA, playing ball in America, with Americans, in front of Americans. On the Houston Rockets, Yao Ming is a foreigner in a foreign land surrounded by teammates and fans who actively notice the Chinese guy. The national team offers him an opportunity to feel normal again. Meanwhile, the NBA’s Americans are surrounded by…themselves. They play in the league they have dreamt about, on the teams of their idols, in the cities where they grew up. Plus, they are Americans. What is our collective identity? What binds us anymore?

I would bet that the men’s basketball team has competed no more or less for love of country than has the swim team, gymnastics team, or any other group of American athletes. We are a nation of regions and factions now, the coasts, the Midwest, the dirty south, the Great Plains, the fighting class, the money class, Bush voters, Obama volunteers.

So it was with this basketball team. In the past, if it were Kobe or Iverson, Boozer or Brand, James or Pierce, what difference did it make to us? We were after an outcome. But if you watched this team play together, watched them make American basketball beautiful again, then it should matter who puts on the red, white, and blue from here on out. Should matter for London 2012. Who knows what will happen the next four years, but I want to see this team get the itch Florida Gator-style, all hands in and away we go.

Yes, we could have played a different 12, but we played these 12, and that matters. I want it to matter to us, the basketball fans of America, because it damn sure matters to them. Watching the postgame, it was clear: those 12 guys are heading back to their NBA teams feeling like they share a secret. Stoudemire, Chandler, Joe Johnson and the rest? I want them feeling like they missed out on something, like they would do anything to be a part of it next time around.

Jason Kidd will be 39 in 2012. That might be time enough to pack it in. But the other 11 could all reasonably suit up for Team USA in London, and I hope that they do. The Three Year Mission was about commitment, commitment to the team, to the sport, to the work, to each other, to matching the world’s commitment to all above. And we did that, gold or no. Now it’s time to continue that commitment, because for Spain and Argentina, for Greece and China and Australia and Lithuania, these past three years have not been about finally doing it right. They have been about always doing it right.

There was a great unexpected thrill in watching this team. It wasn’t seeing them play as a unit or compete for the gold. It was the way the other teams seemed to embrace the challenge of competing against this specific group of Americans. The way Duncan’s Spurs look forward to competing against Nash’s Suns, as if the other nations got the sense that this Team USA was an actual team.

Redemption isn’t a three-year journey. It’s not a gold medal. It’s every day, every play, every practice, every game. It’s a national team with a true identity. It’s everything that we have been privy to these past three years extended over the next thirty. That’s a redeem team.

In the meantime though, appreciate these 12 guys, this 2008 gold medal-winning Olympic team. The offensive boards, defensive squats, blocked shots, long threes. Bron in the lane, Melo on the wing, Bosh in the paint, Paul at the point. These 12 guys stamped their faces on Team USA like no squad since, well, that one. Fact is though, only five of those returned in ’96; perhaps that’s why it was all just a dream…

Copyright 2008, jm silverstein

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