The dirty little secret about this U.S. men's basketball team is that it has played harder than any team in the Olympics and has been superior at doing anything that required plain old-fashioned effort. If there was a ball on the floor, the Americans were almost certain to dive on it first. If there was a loose rebound, the U.S. players were usually quicker to it than anybody. It wasn't a lack of desire or fight that led the U.S. men to the bronze medal game.
It was a lack of skill.
There is all the evidence in the world of that, but we in America don't like to admit such things. All Argentina did in its 89-81 victory Friday was exhibit superior passing and shooting. All the Argentines did was take a lead seven minutes into the game and hold it the rest of the way. They made 54 percent of their field goal tries and 50 percent of their three-point shots, while the Americans made 42 percent of their field goal tries, and just 27 percent of their three-point shots. Argentina recorded 18 assists to just 11 for the United States.
See, this isn't the "NBA Live" video game or the "And 1" street ball tour or an AAU summer league game in which players are judged by who can throw it down and make the world go "Ooooooh." Basketball is now so competitive that to be a world-class team you had better have players with world-class skills. And the fact, Jack, is that the U.S. team has A-plus determination but only C-plus skills.
It showed against Puerto Rico when the tournament opened, then again against Lithuania, and once more against Argentina. That's three losses in 12 days for a team representing a nation that had previously lost once, legitimately, in the history of Olympic basketball. "We fought as hard as we could," Allen Iverson said, quite accurately. "They executed their offense nearly perfectly." On that, he was quite accurate as well.
It should no longer be unthinkable for a U.S. team full of NBA players to be eliminated from gold medal contention. American players, and this includes those sitting at home, aren't as skilled as their predecessors. And increasingly, they're not as skilled as their international peers.
Sarunas Jasikevicius is probably the best shooter in this tournament. He's Lithuanian.
Pau Gasol has been the best big man in the competition by a million miles. He's a Spaniard.
Manu Ginobili has been the best all-around guard. He's an Argentine.
Carlos Arroyo has been perhaps the best playmaker. He's Puerto Rican.
The best dunk doesn't count for anything here. There's no medal for the best crossover. Sneakers sold doesn't move you to the next round. Oh, and the refs call traveling in the Olympics, which took two points and a breakaway dunk away from LeBron James against Argentina.
"It's time to give some credit to basketball players around the world," Argentina's Pepe Sanchez said. "We can play the sport."
Sanchez is in a unique position to judge. He played college ball at Temple for John Chaney. He was traded, twice no less, by Larry Brown in the NBA. He grew up on NBA basketball. His voice drops to a whisper when he says names like John Stockton and Michael Jordan. But Sanchez is a little tired of the excuse-making, of the inability for Americans to see world basketball for what it is now, not what it was in 1992.
"Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were posters in your bedroom," Sanchez said. "Those guys were like a myth. These guys are players. There's no fear of them. They're great players, too. They're the best team in the world in terms of individuals, don't get me wrong. But the game is five-on-five, not one-on-one. It's not tennis.
"It's upsetting to keep hearing that these guys need time to adjust to the rules and the international game is so different for them. Rules? A guy misses a jump shot from three, wide open. What rule is that? You gotta be kidding me. They tried to play zone against us. We hit two threes, they had to stop playing zone. That's not having trouble with a rule. Hit a shot, the other team can't sit back in a zone."
It's just that simple to Sanchez, because he can hit the three. And if he can't on a given night, two or three of his teammates can. For example, Argentina made 11 of 22 three-point tries. But this U.S. team didn't have players who could do that. Few American players can. When you learn basketball from "And 1" and "SportsCenter" and the AAU coach who has been slobbering over you since you turned 12, this is what happens. You move along, especially if you can run and jump, despite your basketball-specific deficiencies. It's not difficult to trace the erosion of skills in this country, to figure out why players in America don't pass and shoot well.
Start with the fact that they don't go to college. Or if they do, they don't stay long. Seven of the 12 players on this U.S. team went to college two years or fewer. Five went one season or not at all. Where would they have acquired the fundamental skills that members of, say, the Dream Team had? On the playground? In summer league? This is the direction all of American basketball is going. Lamar Odom points out, accurately, that in European countries the kids are almost locked away in schools/basketball camps that increasingly produce polished basketball players by age 20. Is this good for their lives? Probably not. But these Europeans and South Americans are dramatically improved at passing and shooting and their American counterparts are worse.
We in America don't see that, by and large. We presume when a player is black and athletic he is a superior player. When he's got a big shoe contract, can sell some soda and can throw it down in an NBA game, we presume he's skilled. And when somebody suggests he might not be as skilled as some white kid from Lithuania or Serbia, well, we Americans laugh our heads off, don't we? Hey, Larry Bird just did it. He just said he felt insulted when a white guy was assigned to guard him.
You can't get to the heart of what's up with contemporary American basketball without dealing with the perception of race. Black and white people in America presume black athleticism on a basketball court equals skill, and it doesn't. Skill is colorless. All kinds of people can develop it, from Beijing to Vilnius.
While it's clear basketball outside of America has improved dramatically, it's plain stupid to argue that American basketball is better than it was a dozen years ago. Serbia didn't have a Peja Stojakovic a dozen years ago. Spain didn't have a Gasol a dozen years ago. Argentina certainly didn't have a Ginobili a dozen years ago. Germany didn't have a Dirk Nowitzki. All those countries have better players now than ever. Meanwhile, there isn't an American player in the NBA today who has Chris Mullin's jump shot or his economy of movement, who knows the lines and angles that can be exploited the way he knew them. And Mullin was probably the 10th best player on that Olympic team.
Stranger than seeing the U.S. team play for bronze is seeing celebrated American players turn out to be less skilled than their counterparts from other nations, whose players grew up post-Dream Team, wanting one day to be as good as the top Americans in the NBA. Looks like that day has come.