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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

(continued from page 2)

The NBA stars swept again at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. But despite a who's who of All-Stars—Vince Carter and Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Jason Kidd—the U.S. margin in the last four games dipped as low as two points, and in the final the United States beat France by just 10.

The sixth-place finish in the 2002 World Championships served up a kind of remedial course in how to play the NBA. International teams crept closer in their three-point shooting and in fourth quarters were shutting down a U.S. offense that played a grueling nine games in 10 days.

The selection committee returned to its battle station and emerged with a compelling plan for the '04 Olympics. "I thought by selecting a core of nine players and playing ten games in [the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in] 2003 would help our training issues," says Miller. The nine core players were Allen, Mike Bibby, Kobe Bryant, Iverson, Kidd, Tracy McGrady, Tim Duncan, Jermaine O'Neal and Karl Malone. All would be invited back for the Olympics. "It was normal to lose some players to injuries, so we thought we might get down to six or seven and fill out the remainder of the roster," says Miller. The first two to drop out were Bryant and Malone. Bryant had surgery in 2003 and missed the qualifiers while Malone left training camp after two days when his mother died.

The United States excelled in the qualifiers, which were held in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It finished 10-0, including two defeats each of third-place Puerto Rico and second-place Argentina; one of the victories over the latter was a 106-73 pasting in the gold medal game. Outside shooting was no concern. Bibby was scurrying around the baseline, losing defenders in double screens and knocking down baseline jumpers, and McGrady had unlimited range. Bibby hit for 60 percent; McGrady, 54 percent. "There wasn't one person in Puerto Rico who was worried about the Olympics," says Miller. "If you called Argentina and talked to them, you would see that both [the Argentinean and U.S.] teams had generally conceded that the U.S. was again going to run away with the gold medal."

But the expected continuity of that squad was undercut in 2004 as one by one, players dropped off. The reasons were varied: Allen (fatherhood), Bibby (personal reasons), Bryant (legal issues), Kidd (knee surgery), Malone (recovering from injuries), McGrady (personal reasons), O'Neal (resting an injury). McGrady and Bibby didn't cancel until late June, leaving only Iverson, Duncan and alternate Richard Jefferson from the original group. Others such as Elton Brand (injury), Vince Carter (marriage) and Kenyon Martin (free agency) refused invitations. Feelers went out to four first-tier stars, but they all refused. Kevin Garnett was getting married and also had security concerns, Shaquille O'Neal needed rest, and Pistons Richard Hamilton and Ben Wallace both expressed security concerns and needed rest.

Larry Brown asked his players Wallace and Hamilton to come, but at the time there had been a recent bombing at a police station in Athens. "These guys were big, famous people and they were going to be sitting on an ocean liner, and friends were telling them, 'A rocket will take it out,' " says Chicago Tribune writer Sam Smith. "They're not security experts but they are emotional, and besides, the Olympic committee was having all sorts of questions. Ticket sales were way down, due to security, so it wasn't just basketball players worrying about it. People around the world were worrying. Now we see there were no problems. There were more problems in Atlanta in 1996."

Since practice started on July 26, barely a month remained to fill out the squad. Calls went out to some of the NBA's budding stars. The average age of the new team was 23.6, the youngest of the four Olympic squads since NBA players started competing. The selection committee got rookie stars like Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony. Their youth and marketability made them attractive for this and future Olympics. Still, only four of the 12 on the new team—Duncan, Iverson, Stephon Marbury and Shawn Marion—had been NBA All-Stars. The chemistry was also questionable.

After the first practice, Larry Brown said, "We're going to have trouble shooting." But Brown had been consulted and signed off on the selection of the players. International teams play zone defense and the only counter is good shooting, but five players were coming off seasons with low shooting percentages: Anthony (.426 percent), James (.417), Marbury (.431), Iverson (.387) and Amare Stoudemire (.475). If the strategy was to play "inside-out" with Duncan, who was supposed to take care of the "out"?

The United States finished 5-3, a record destined to become forgotten trivia for a public that demands everything from NBA stars. This was not—as some complained—a matter of too many cornrows, tattoos or long shorts, which are just the latest signs of the new conformity, just as Heinsohn flattops and Chuck Taylors once were. And the press that glibly attributed the losses to lack of effort got it all wrong. Iverson ignored doctors and played with a broken thumb. Tim Duncan and super rookie Lebron James dived for loose balls. Lamar Odom played nearly 28 minutes with the flu and was so dehydrated that he needed an IV after one game. But that very intensity of effort just made the result more surprising.

One proposal being floated by the media and the general public for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing is to have tryouts for players instead of selecting them. Tryouts might include invited NBA stars, Americans playing in leagues overseas and some collegians. It's one way of separating the committed from the uncommitted, though it may be hard to persuade some top NBA players or other professionals to try out. Another proposal is to have the previous season's NBA champion represent the United States in the Olympics. But this raises more formidable problems. If San Antonio, say, were to play, it would lose one of its key players, guard Manu Ginobili, to Argentina's Olympic team, and guard Tony Parker to France. Another problem is that free agents would be reluctant to play for fear of suffering a serious injury.

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