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
From the Print Edition:
Cigar of the Year, Jan/Feb 2005
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"International teams are just flat getting better," explains Stu Jackson, NBA vice president of basketball operations and former coach of the New York Knicks and Vancouver Grizzlies. Jackson also chairs the Olympic selection committee, comprised mainly of NBA general managers, plus former and current NBA players. Unlike U.S. players, the core players on many international teams have been together for years. "They know each other and play well together," says Jackson. "They know the offensive and defensive nuances and are extremely productive and efficient teams. They all shoot the basketball extremely well, and it's tough to have an answer.
"There are many things that make it difficult for our teams. If we are going to continue to take our players into international competition on 20 days' training, we are probably going to face very stiff competition and will probably suffer a loss here and there."
The NBA's disappointment in Athens raised eyebrows but was hardly new in international play. In the 2002 World Championships in Indiana, the U.S. team—mostly current and future NBA All-Stars—lost three of its last four games, to Argentina, Yugoslavia and Spain, finishing sixth among 16 teams. The first loss broke a streak of 58 consecutive games won by teams featuring NBA players. The United States dusted opponents by an average tally of 92-75 per game in the tournament, but in the three losses couldn't exceed 80 as Yugoslavia snatched gold for the second consecutive time and fifth time overall in the World Championships.
The skill gap had been closed. Jackson noticed the gap closing even before. "We saw it back in 2000 in the [Sydney] Olympics," says Jackson. "It really hit us in the face. The guard from Lithuania, Jasikevicius, took a three-pointer at the buzzer in the semifinals to beat the U.S. and missed. Otherwise, we would have been playing for the bronze medal that year as well. That served as true evidence that the rest of the world continues to get better."
To see how much ground international teams have made up, you need to go back to the Seoul Olympics in 1988, when the United States won the bronze medal. Finishing behind the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the U.S. squad was composed of collegians like David Robinson, Danny Manning and Dan Majerle, and coached by Georgetown's John Thompson. The team blitzed opponents by an average score of 92-61. But in the semis, with its best outside shooter, Hersey Hawkins, injured, America lost, 82-76, to the Soviet Union, which captured gold.
That loss—and the hypocrisy lurking behind the long-standing definition of "professional"—was the impetus for the United States sending its best players to the 1992 games in Barcelona. Until then, NBA players were banned from the Olympics and World Championships. But in 1989, FIBA, the Fédération Internationale de Basketball, the sport's global governing body, repealed the ban by an overwhelming 56-13 margin. Interestingly, it was a Yugoslav, Boris Stankovic, the secretary general of FIBA, who led the movement for a more inclusive competition. One reason he gave was moral: "We now have a very hypocritical situation," he said. "We have 172 countries in our organization representing 200 million basketball players, but we do not have the best 300 players in the world because they are 'professionals.' People are being paid all over the world. To leave out the best 300 players because they have the name of professionals is hypocritical." Brazilian great Oscar Schmidt was pulling down $500,000 a year playing for Italy. Many others were paid handsomely, making it absurd that only NBA players were prohibited from international competition.
Stankovic's other reason for an open tournament was pragmatic. "Our feeling is that only by playing with the best players in the world can everyone else make progress," he said. "We accept the fact that the Olympics and World Championships will be dominated by the United States, but that difference will be less every year. And one of these years other countries will be competitive with the NBA. In 1936, the U.S. was represented by AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] players, and they dominated for a while, but the rest of the world caught up. Then the U.S. changed to college players, and they dominated for a while, but the world caught up. Now NBA players are dominating, but one day—not in my lifetime, but one day—the world will catch up."
His remarks were prescient: now the NBA is global. The world includes the NBA and the NBA reflects the world. The league has enjoyed unparalleled success in selling its game around the globe, and the world has been buying, watching, learning—and catching up. "An important factor is how long we've been exporting basketball here—either through coaching clinics or playing clinics," says Craig Miller, assistant executive director for communications for USA Basketball. Behold the apprentice who learns his craft so well that he one day usurps the master. Stankovic was wrong about one thing, though: he is still alive and the world—or at least parts of it—has caught up. That fact would have seemed inconceivable just 13 years ago.
In 1992, when the first NBA team performed, there were no signs that the world had done any catching up. The group that deserved the epithet "Dream Team" connected on 58 percent of its shots and steamrolled opponents by an average margin of 44 points. A peerless squad that included Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird has since passed into basketball mythology, spiced with tales of scrimmages where the ball whizzed around the perimeter so precisely that it never touched the floor.
The Atlanta team in 1996 was less dominant, but only slightly so. Led by David Robinson, Reggie Miller, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal, it finished 8-0, winning by an average margin of 32 points. Cries for returning college players were heard frequently. "It's laughable when people say, 'Send a college team,'" says Miller. "People think that would work. But it's like the old days when the college all-stars would play against the NFL champs, like the Chicago Bears. The pros would put a licking on the college kids because they're all more mature and stronger."
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