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The NBA's Troubles Exposed

After Team USA's failure in Athens, a globalizing NBA must now restore America's place at the top of international basketball
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Cigar of the Year, Jan/Feb 2005

Last June Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson called his former coach Larry Brown to congratulate him. Brown had just won his first NBA championship with the Detroit Pistons, who trounced the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers in five games. Iverson had played six years for Brown in Philly without winning a title, but that detail didn't come up in their conversation. Instead, Brown said to Iverson, "We'll win an Olympic medal together this summer."

The Olympic coach's words were true: he and Iverson did carry home a medal. But he'd be lying if he said he expected that medal to be bronze.

It was evident from Game 1 against Puerto Rico that the NBA was in trouble in Athens. The omen came early when the team missed 16 of its first 17 three-point shots—even from the friendly international distance of 20 feet 6 inches

rather than the NBA arc of 23-9. Errant shots clanged off the rim. Others bounded off the side of the backboard. So many bricks were laid that some might have thought they were attending a mason's convention. On defense, the United States couldn't fight through screens to stop Puerto Rico from shooting 50 percent from three-point land, and behind Carlos Arroyo, the starting point guard of the Utah Jazz, Puerto Rico routed the United States, 92-73. "They play the game the way it's supposed to be played," Iverson said afterwards. "It's not about athletics. That's the game the way Karl Malone and John Stockton play it. It's good for kids to see how the game is supposed to be played."

The next object lesson in international ball came courtesy of Lithuania. With minutes left, guard Sarunas Jasikevicius drained three consecutive three-pointers, even getting a four-point play when forward Lamar Odom bumped him, to lead Lithuania to a 94-90 victory. "They kept running the same play over again," explained Jazz center/forward Carlos Boozer. "We didn't adjust, we didn't switch." Jasikevicius was nonchalant to the point of being painfully blunt: "We beat the States. So what? We came here not to beat the States or any other team; we came here to fight for the medal."

With an 89-81 loss to Argentina in the semis, the United States lost its last chance at gold. The scenario was familiar: NBA players missed 8 of 11 attempts from beyond the arc and center Tim Duncan played only 20 minutes before fouling out, due in large measure to an assortment of inexplicable foul calls. In the end, the U.S. contingent had to settle for the bronze medal with a 104-96 victory over Lithuania.

The disappointment in Athens can't be reduced to mere wins and losses. The rest of the world has caught up, at least in contests with international rules. The above-the-rim athletic ability of the NBA stars didn't intimidate the international players as it had in the past. Instead, foreign teams used superior screening, passing and shooting—coupled with America's inability to defend or consistently hit perimeter shots and free throws—to undo the U.S. side. Fundamentals and team will trumped individual skill.

Moreover, because of the length of the NBA schedule—Detroit played 105 games last season—and a greater desire for players to win an NBA trophy each year rather than Olympic gold every four, the problem of selecting and training squads in 2008 and beyond will be enormous. And can the league ever get past the image problem resulting from the brawl last November when the frequently suspended Ron Artest—and several Indiana Pacers teammates—charged into the stands to attack a fan who had thrown a cup of ice at him during a last-minute dustup with Detroit's Ben Wallace? Beyond international play and thuggish behavior, what is the direction of the NBA? After 20-plus years of hitting its apex on the court, what is the league's next act? Will ever-increasing numbers of high school graduates on rosters and a greater influx of individual talent make the NBA game a must-see?

Before the three losses in Athens, NBA players owned a perfect Olympic record of 24-0, dating to the "Dream Team" of the 1992 Barcelona Games, the first time NBA players competed. But the international premium on team play—and the ability to shoot and defend three-point shots—exposed the NBA in 2004. The United States allowed opponents 83.5 points per game, ranking ninth in defense among 12 teams. Its three-point shooting was an abysmal 31 percent, while teams hit 44 percent against them.

"I was disappointed," says NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik. "But we've known for some time that it's not going to be easy anymore." Disappointed, but not surprised. In an interview before the Games he had hedged his bets, saying, "We won't guarantee any medals but we will be competitive."

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