This is where I came in, with the U.S. dominant and its Olympic team playing its rear end off.
The first Games I covered were in 1984 in Los Angeles when Bob Knight drove his college players as only he could. With their star power – Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Sam Perkins – and that level of effort, the world was overmatched. The talk then was that it, along with the 1960 team with Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, were the best there ever were.
The 2008 U.S. team was like the pro version of Knight’s team, with the same effort and even more star power. That was fortunate for the Americans because when they got into that shootout at the end with Spain, they needed every bit of firepower they had.
Even in 1984, things were changing, although no one knew how much.
As good as Knight’s team was, there was someone out there capable of playing with them – the USSR – but it boycotted.
Four years later at Seoul, the last Soviet Olympic team with Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis and a cast of jump shooters whipped John Thompson’s U.S. squad fair and square. That did it for U.S. college players, who bowed out in favor of the NBA stars who were supposed to put the U.S. back on top forever, starting with the Dream Team’s triumph at Barcelona in 1992.
It turned out to be forever or 10 years, whichever came first.
Boris Stankovic, the far-sighted head of FIBA who made it possible for the professionals to participate, turned out to be even farther-sighted than he knew.
“Now NBA players are dominating,” said Stankovic at Barcelona, “but one day – not in my lifetime but one day – the world will catch up."
Stankovic is still going strong and if the world hasn’t caught up, it has definitely closed the gap.
It wasn’t long before the Americans couldn’t just show up and accept everyone’s surrender. If they couldn’t shoot, had no chemistry and/or weren’t together long to prepare for the international game, they were in trouble. As U.S. scout Tony Ronzone, the Pistons’ director of basketball operations said in Beijing last week, “And that’s all we sent.”
Then came the Athenian Nightmare in 2004, when nine members of the team that qualified the preceding summer bailed amid scare stories about terrorism. Larry Brown wound up with a makeshift team with Stephon Marbury at the point, Lamar Odom and Richard Jefferson at forward… And lost three more games.
Then the U.S. got serious, with Jerry Colangelo setting up an ongoing program and Coach Mike Krzyzewski making sure his team had plenty of time to prepare for the 2006 Worlds in Saitama, Japan, where they… lost?
Greece stunned them in the semifinals as point guard Vassilis Spanoulis ran pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll down the stretch and the U.S. broke down completely.
That was how far the world had come. Even if the U.S. players parked their attitudes, put in the time and took it seriously, they weren’t guaranteed anything if all the pieces weren’t there. Indeed, there was one piece of the puzzle missing but it – he – arrived the next summer in the person of Kobe Bryant.
Out the summer before after knee surgery, Bryant came joined the team for the 2007 Tournament of the Americas, determined to make an impact on defense. This was a suprise for anyone who didn’t know Bryant but he had seen the game against Greece – which aired at 3 am on the West Coast – which was all he had to see.
On the very first possession of his Bryant’s first game against Venezuela, he pounced on point guard Greivis Vasquez, a rising freshman at Maryland who had missed a triple-double by one rebound in his first game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Bryant tipped the ball away, dove on the floor after it and when Vasquez got it back, jumped up, stole Vasquez’s next pass and started a fast break the other way.
“That’s the clip Coach K always uses, Kobe diving on the floor,” says Ronzone. “You’re talking about an MVP player in the NBA who just made a statement to USA. basketball… And what that did is it took our defense to another level. What you’re seeing is something that started last summer in Las Vegas, which is amazing.”
Even the Dream Team wasn’t known for its defense but for its firepower and star power.
If the 2008 team resembled Knight’s, it’s no coincidence. Knight was once Krzyzewski’s mentor; Krzyzewski even broke down game film for him at Los Angeles. Kryzewski’s team would be one of the smallest teams the U.S. had sent in decades with no seven-footer and only Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh over 6-9. It was also probably the most athletic they ever sent with Howard and Bosh able to get out on shooters.
This team was more than just good. In a refreshing change, it was nice.
After years of arrogance and macho that turned the world off as fast as the Dream Team turned it on, Colangelo and Krzyzewski set out to show the U.S. could regain its preeminence without looking like an And 1 Mixtape.
The horror show had started in the 1994 Worlds at Toronto where the so-called “Dream Team II” with its Young Guns, put on an Ugly American Clinic. Bristling at comparisons to the Dream Team whose play they couldn’t begin to match, the Young Guns, notably Larry Johnson, Derrick Coleman and Shawn Kemp, showboated, rubbed it in opponents’ faces and talked trash.
That deal where the opposing teams wanted their pictures taken with the Dream Team? That ended at Toronto.
“I don't know if vile is the right word or disgusting,” said Australia’s Andrew Gaze. “There should be at least some pleasure in playing the game, some dignity."
Replied Johnson: "I didn't come here to make friends. I've got enough friends.”
All it took was some leadership and all of that went away.
“I really do believe from everything I know from people I respect, the people in the world thought the American teams didn’t respect them,” says Colangelo. “Didn’t respect them as teams, as individuals, arrogant, that kind of thing. And that had to end….
“From those first meetings with players, I said, ‘Look, this is what people think of us. We have to change this. We have to come in with a whole new attitude. We have to show respect for our country, show respect for our team, show respect for our opponents. And anything less than that’s not going to fly.’"
Old foes like Gaze and Lithuania’s Sarunas Jasikevicius who had bristled at their old arrogance, noticed the difference.
“I think they’ve been outstanding, the way they’ve conducted themselves,” said Gaze, doing TV at Beijing. “They may be coming from a fairly low base from some of their predecessors in the way they’ve gone about it….
“I think they’ve really taken on the challenge, not only to resurrect the reputation of what goes on the court but what goes off the court.”
Nevertheless, as great as this U.S. team was, Spain stood up to it in the finals even while giving up 118 points, scoring 107, taking the formidable U.S. defense apart, highlighted the driving dunk Rudy Fernandez threw down in Howard’s mug.
I’m pretty confident Spain would have beaten the 2000 U.S. team that night. (Of course, it would have beaten the 2004 team. Like, who didn’t?) The 1996 team with Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley might have been in trouble.
Unfortunately for the game, which gains immeasurably from real drama in the Olympics – even if it doesn’t go over so well in the U.S. – FIBA is about to change things again.
By 2012 in London, the conical lane will be gone and the three-point line will have been moved back from it’s present 20-6, one foot longer than the college line to 22-2.
Insiders say FIBA is doing it to get one set of rules worldwide, in the sure knowledge the NBA won’t be changing its rules. The international rules evened things out, minimizing the impact of all that U.S. athleticism, enhancing the importance of the international teams’ shooting prowess.
Not only isn’t anything broken, it was really getting interesting, so why are they trying to fix it?
Anyway, there’s no doubt the U.S. is back. For how long remains to be seen.
Follow Mark Heisler on Twitter at @MarkHeisler