Foreign Hoops Is All Greek to U.S.

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By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, September 2, 2006

Our arrogance has no boundaries when it comes to international basketball, though it ought to by now, after yet another loss in a major competition. Even Americans who pay fairly close attention to world basketball, people who should know better, took one look at the Greek roster and dismissively figured, "No NBA players on the roster? Then no chance for Greece."

As dumb as it is for American fans to be so presumptuous, especially after a string of losses dating from 1987, it's even dumber for anybody actually involved in international competition to be dismissive. But that's exactly what I heard in the words of Team USA's Joe Johnson earlier this week. The Atlanta Hawks guard, asked if the United States is unstoppable when the team shoots well, answered: "No doubt, when our shots are falling and when they're not falling. I think our biggest opponent is ourselves right now."

This was after beating up on the likes of Senegal and Australia, teams that were never going to challenge the world's top teams anyway. But you know how we roll; one foreign basketball team is the same as another. China, Senegal, Greece and Spain . . . they're all the same, right? They are to most Americans, fans and players alike, which is one of many reasons U.S. teams, first the college boys and now the pros, are getting whipped in these international competitions.

We commit the single most arrogant and unpardonable mistake in competition: We underestimate the opponent. Hell, half the time we don't even pay any attention to the opponent. We didn't know the Greek players, so how could they be any good? Where are their phat shoe contracts? Where were they in the Top 10 Dunks on "SportsCenter"? How talented could they be if they don't have a Gatorade commercial or answer to a single name like Shaq or Kobe or LeBron?

Greece? Why should we pay attention to Greece?

Because they won. Because Greece, a team known only for playing good defense in this tournament, scored 101 points early Friday morning in Japan and eliminated Team USA from the FIBA World Championship.

In every other sport we seem to understand that we're not the only ones playing, that we're not vastly superior and, in fact, often aren't as good. We're fairly arrogant about Ryder Cup play, too, but not to the extreme of basketball. Americans only popularized golf; we invented basketball. And we dominated hoops for nearly 100 years if you don't count being cheated out of the gold medal in the 1972 Olympics.

But a lot has happened since, beginning in 1987, when Brazil beat a U.S. team of collegiate players. The Dream Team reestablished American superiority in Barcelona in 1992. But the United States barely won Olympic gold in 2000 in Sydney, finished sixth in the world championship in 2002, lost three times in the 2004 Olympics and now has failed to win in the 2006 world championship.

The rest of the world isn't catching up. They've caught up. I think, in terms of international competition, they've passed us.

Please, I don't want to hear about how we could have won if we'd only had our best players. Two of the brightest men in the basketball community, Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski, led the effort that put together this team. Don't tell me we lost because Tim Duncan wasn't there, because Duncan was there in Athens two years ago when the United States lost. Don't tell me "Well, Allen Iverson wasn't there," because A.I. was there two years ago with Duncan when the United States lost those three games. Don't tell me that Paul Pierce and Tracy McGrady would have made all the difference because they could have busted those zone defenses Americans struggle with, because Pierce and McGrady were on the world championship team four years ago when the U.S. team finished sixth.

This team had access to all the shooters and role players in America, and one of the great coaches in the history of modern basketball -- Coach K -- and lost. Why? Because we're not as good, not in this international format, anyway. But more than anything we lose these most recent affairs because we look down our nose at the competition, which is going to land us in the same position in 2008 in Beijing if we don't wise up.

The game has changed. Much of it has been given over at the grassroots level to the forces of AAU, hip-hop and video game nonsense, where the emphasis has switched from learning how to play fundamentally to embarrassing the opponent in any way imaginable and posing while doing so. Combine this new attitude with the traditional arrogance from people nearing age 60 who grew up without ever seeing the United States challenged other than in '72, and we've got just about every basketball demographic covered in hubris.

It's a cultural condition that afflicts us: If we lose, it must be our own fault because, well, just look at you.

And it's a racial condition as well. We -- and by "we" I mean Americans of all colors -- have conditioned ourselves to look at European teams specifically and dismiss them out of hand because they're white. Or we think they're white. And of course, Americans have led the world in telling folks that white men can't jump, though amazingly some of those Greek kids apparently didn't accept our premise. I never thought this U.S. team was going to beat Spain or Argentina but it didn't even get to that.

What's sure to happen now is that we'll start to pick apart Team USA, and I will admit that I don't understand how we continue to go from one competition to the next without multiple pure shooters. Will we at some point stop paying lip service to having shooters and actually put some pure shooters on the team?

Still, there's no sense in picking apart the players on the team. USA Basketball picked the right team for the most part, though cutting veteran defender, three-point shooter and calming influence Bruce Bowen seemed regrettable to me the moment he was let go. And who in his right mind would question selecting Krzyzewski to coach the team? In fact, look at the men whose teams have lost in international play the last 19 years. Denny Crum (1987 Pan American Games) won two NCAA championships. John Thompson ('88 Seoul Olympics) won an NCAA championship. George Karl (2002 World Championship) might not have won a championship, but only a fool would suggest he's not a fine coach. Larry Brown (2004 Olympics) has won championships in college and the NBA. And Coach K has won three NCAA championships.

You want to argue with the selection of coaches? These men are or were great coaches. International teams (particularly in Europe and South America) studied at the feet of those coaches in clinics and competitions. And they taught the American game to their European, South American, Asian and African players.

Now those players play this particular brand of basketball -- one not controlled by our slash-and-slam style that's grown so tiresome -- better than we do. The question now, as we look to the Olympic Games of 2008, is whether we'll spend the next two years making excuses or taking a good look at the growing number of teams internationally who play at least as well as we do, and increasingly better.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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