As Canadians wrung their hands over another mediocre Olympics performance, American basketball fans turned to their Prozac and gin. The post-mortem on the United States (Bad) Dream Team is nigh--three losses in one tournament, surpassing the total number of U.S. losses in all previous Olympic history. The bronze medal brought home from Athens offered no solace to a country where one cannot even "win" silver.
This outcome should not surprise people who think about basketball and international sport culture. The economics of globalization affect the National Basketball Association (NBA) as much as it does the fortunes of banks, investors, and public health. Given the number of Europeans and Asians now playing lead roles in the NBA, the world has caught up with the U.S. in the game the republic once deemed its own. All contending Olympic teams now boast NBA stars. In sport, as in finance, talent and dollars flow across permeable political boundaries. Check the NHL rosters if you don't believe this.
Critics offered other reasons for the American debacle: The best NBA players, including Shaq O'Neill and Kobe Bryant, did not play; Coach Larry Brown only had his team for a month, where other teams had worked together for years; the Americans faced relentless hostility in all their games; the referees let a lot of contact go ("no autopsy, no foul"); the other teams could shoot.
But the American losses, as well as their close win over sluggish Greece, were particularly telling in their revelation of what the North American professional game has become. The beautiful team game of yore is gone, replaced by idiosyncratic athleticism that finds major expression in astonishing 360-degree slam-dunks and in-your-face rejects. Fundamental things, little thingslike defensive footwork, setting picks, crisp passes and sharp cuts, even shooting basketsare no longer part of the men's professional game. Someone might have told the American stars that a spectacular dunk, though magnificent to behold, only counts two points and blocking shots is not the same thing as preventing them.
In assessing the decline of the American basketball empire, one also ponders the aesthetics of basketball which--like other cultural productions--must affect us in special ways that inspire us in life. This is the secret power of great novels, films, and songs. And as late as the 1980s, the artistic character of basketball stressed teamwork and practiced skillsreflecting time-honoured values of what historian Warren Susman deemed the Victorian producer culture. Emerging in an era of scarcity in the early 20th century, this code stressed discipline and frugality, placed a premium on intelligence and resilience, and emphasized the need for teamwork, diligence, and insight. Most important, the producer culture accentuated the need to subordinate individual greatness to the needs of the team.
In basketball, from the 1950s through the early 1980s, successful coaches stressed practice, repetition, and the idea that no part was greater than the whole. Even the great Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton learned this lesson while playing for John Wooden's UCLA Bruins, who won ten NCAA titles in twelve years by heeding the little things (dip-steps, footwork, free-throw shooting) so that the big things would take care of themselves.
Wooden's NCAA teams were analogous to Red Holtzman's New York Knicks and--even more so--Red Auerbach's Boston Celtics dynasty. Both squads featured an aesthetic similar to the workings of a fine watch or superior symphony. To watch the Bruins, Knicks, and Celtics was to observe poetry--to observe and appreciate groups that moved in synchronicity, executing moves and patterns that must have been practiced, practiced again, and then practiced some more.
Now, things are different. We still tout the values of Susman's producer culture, but free market values--institutionalized in our omniscient and omnivorous consumer culture--are the standards that guide tastes and lives. Here, the free-market abundance of choice (usually made in China) powerfully affects the global trade in athletic goods, services, and bodies.
Now everything comes down to winning, not at all how one plays the game. In the Athens Olympics the U.S. showed it could do neither. The multimillion dollar contracts and endorsements that the U.S. stars command are made possible by a market that values individual more than group achievement. We should look more critically at the millions of dollars that flow that flow to people like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony and the system that propels it. Sheer athleticism--built upon a foundation of style, personality, and media hype--carries an aura unprecedented in human history. It's wonderful to watch.
But in the Olympics, this linchpin of NBA entertainment proved insufficient. The athletes were there. The team wasn't.
Geoff Smith played intercollegiate basketball in the U.S. in the Cenozoic Era.