U.S. basketball once stood in the same Olympic pantheon as Cuban boxing and Chinese table tennis. From basketball's inclusion in the Games in 1936 until this summer, the United States had won every gold medal save three -- in 1972, in a controversial loss to the Soviet Union, 1980, the year of the boycott, and 1988, in Seoul. Since the rules were changed to allow players from the National Basketball Association to compete for the first time in 1992, the United States did not defeat as much as emasculate the competition.
But during a humbling two weeks in Athens -- capped by an 89-81 loss to Argentina in the Olympic semifinals Friday night -- America's game was exposed as ailing. Beaten by purer shooters and better passers three times in 13 days, a U.S. team composed exclusively of NBA professionals will not win the gold medal for the first time, a fact that has many asking what is wrong with basketball in the United States.
Even before Friday's defeat, players and coaches here were speaking with bluntness about the diminished state of the American game. The decline, they said, was in part due to a haphazardly constructed team that had much less time to practice and play together than other teams at the Olympic tournament.
But more troubling, the game's observers say, is that the sublime choreography of teamwork has all but vanished from American playgrounds and gymnasiums. They say the development of younger players, from grade school through college and on to the NBA, has been irreparably damaged by a culture caught up in promoting individuals and stars rather than teams.
The lack of teaching and proper coaching at crucial ages, combined with the proliferation of high school players entering the NBA in the past decade, has created a generation of players no longer feared by international opponents. And it has turned many NBA games into a morass of poor shooting and inept passing, punctuated by an occasional highlight-reel dunk.
"In most other countries, coaching is revered and respected," said Donnie Nelson, the president of operations for the NBA's Dallas Mavericks who has worked with the Lithuanian national team for 13 years. "In our country now, it's tolerated. I don't know all the reasons for that, but when people fill a young player's head with garbage and tell him he's the next Michael Jordan when he's not, and that player listens to what the media says about them, they stop working on their games.
"We have to recapture the way we taught players. The United States losing like this is an opportunity for us to address some problems."
Larry Brown, the U.S. coach, candidly acknowledged the decline of the American game last week by pointing out the deficiencies of his own players.
"When I was growing up, the first thing players used to do was throw the ball inside, trying to draw fouls or make easy baskets," said Brown, who led the Detroit Pistons to the NBA title this year. "Great players like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson understood this from the beginning of their career, but it's going to take some time for these players to understand it as well. These kids have never so far been coached, benched or asked to play roles within the team."
Ken Shields, the former Canadian national coach and now an assistant with Australia, thinks the problems associated with the American game stem from the NBA's star system.
"Bluntly, the NBA has created a monster," Shields said. "Even before this team, they used to always market the game as 'Shaq and Kobe vs. Malone and Stockton.' It became big business and the game was compromised.
"It doesn't make sense. Are the NBA coaches the most brilliant basketball coaches in the world? Yes. Are the NBA's players the most brilliant basketball players in the world? Yes. Are the general managers the most brilliant basketball executives in the world? Yes. Then what's wrong?"
Some believe U.S. basketball is a victim of its own success. The game has grown so popular that the rest of the world is catching up. Indeed, many of the NBA's brightest stars were playing in Greece -- for other countries.
"It's not what's wrong with us as much as what's right with the rest of the world," said Stu Jackson, chairman of the U.S. Senior Men's National Committee, which selected this year's U.S. Olympic team. Like NBA Commissioner David Stern, Jackson believes the export of U.S. coaches to other countries -- and the seminal moment in 1992 when Jordan and his iconic Dream Team teammates won the gold medal in Barcelona -- has inspired other nations to pull even.
"There are many factors, but the simple fact remains this isn't necessarily an indictment on the U.S. team as it is a celebration of basketball around the world," Jackson said. "We need to understand -- fans, basketball people alike -- the rest of the world is getting better."
The United States will meet Lithuania for the bronze medal on Saturday. But its three losses in Athens the past two weeks are already an Olympic low point for U.S. men's basketball. Before these games, the United States was 109-2 in Olympic play dating from 1936. The only two U.S. losses came in 1972, to the former Soviet Union, and in 1988, when Hall of Fame coach John Thompson took the last group of exclusively college players to Seoul and the United States was beaten by an older and vastly more experienced Soviet squad.
At the 2003 FIBA Americas Olympic Qualifier in Puerto Rico last summer, a balanced and star-laden U.S. team went 10-0. But only three members of that unit -- Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and Richard Jefferson -- chose to go to Athens.
Tracy McGrady and Ray Allen cited security concerns. All-stars Jason Kidd and Jermaine O'Neal nursed late-season injuries. So did Vince Carter and Elton Brand, though privately USA Basketball officials felt some of the reported ailments were dubious. Mike Bibby never came up with a concrete reason why he didn't want to play. Kenyon Martin was awaiting a free agent contract and did not want to jeopardize his health.
Jackson invited Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, an original Dream Team member, and Kobe Bryant. Garnett and O'Neal had already won gold medals and decided early on not to play. Malone injured his knee. Bryant was committed, but pulled out when he realized his sexual assault case in Colorado would go to trial at the end of August. Richard Hamilton and Ben Wallace, two of Brown's players on the NBA champion Pistons, balked in late June.
In all, 14 players effectively said no.
Stern defended the U.S. players and his league before the loss to Argentina. "I'm not here to apologize for these players because their dedication speaks for itself," Stern said. "This is not about saying some players should have been here or not. Great basketball players came here to play in Greece. And on behalf of the NBA, and on behalf of, I think, right-thinking Americans, I'm thankful to them and I'm thankful how they've conducted themselves on the court and off the court."
Even so, USA Basketball's decision to go with a group of young stars signaled a clear message to the world: the United States was sending four players without a day of international experience and a roster with an average of just 9.7 games of international experience -- compared with more than 100 games for most of the accomplished teams in the tournament.
Preparation time also hurt the Americans. The players did not formally begin practice until July 26 in Jacksonville, Fla. Within eight days they were off to play exhibitions overseas.
"If they had six weeks to prepare, you'd see a different team," said Del Harris, the Dallas Mavericks' assistant now coaching China during the Olympics. "Over the short days the United States prepares for this tournament, you no longer can expect to have an easy time like you did in '92. Lithuania, with how they've prepared and practiced, could actually go into the NBA and win games right now."
But the trouble the United States had in assembling a team pointed to another fact: Nowadays, elite, young NBA millionaires are willing to turn down an offer to represent their country in basketball, viewing the Olympics as less a privilege than a meager-paying summer job that wears down the body before NBA training camps begin in October.
The major problem with the U.S. game, coaches and players contend, is the lack of coaching at critical junctures of players' development. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, top high school players began traversing the country, auditioning for prospective recruiters and general managers at camps sponsored by sneaker giants such as Nike and Adidas.
Instead of honing their talents during the offseason, emerging high school stars now tour the country's five-star tournaments, scrimmaging in front of whomever will pay for their travel and shoes. The cycle can continue in college, where a growing number of coaches are under pressure to win immediately. As players are funneled in and out quickly, often staying for less than two seasons, the result is less teaching and more reliance on one or two stars to deliver a bid to the NCAA tournament.
And once players advance to the NBA, there is no longer any guarantee they will learn the qualities that help them in international play. "How many teams in the NBA run a five-man offense?" said Shields, the former Canadian national team coach. "The NBA rules are there for what? They're there to let the stars shine. So when your team cannot play defense against the other team's best player, the other players around the star don't develop."
The original Dream Team won by an average margin of 43.8 points in Barcelona. The 1996 U.S. squad, dubbed Dream Team II, had Malone, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, David Robinson and Charles Barkley -- all future Hall of Famers. It won by an average of 31.7 points per game. The 2000 team won by an average of 21.6 points. The past two weeks the United States has outscored opponents by less than six points per game -- if it won.
"As players growing up, they're skipping big parts of their own development to get to the NBA quicker," Brown said of today's American professionals last week.
"I envy international teams," the coach added. "I was looking at players showing passion for their teammates, their country, their sport. It's a beautiful thing that we're missing."