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."
"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."
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.
Several owners, like those in Sacramento and Dallas, have already voiced displeasure about their players competing in international events. Dallas owner Mark Cuban has several foreign players—including star Dirk Nowitzki from Germany—and disapproves of his stars playing in other tournaments. "He says, 'I'm paying these guys millions of dollars. I don't want them playing, what do I get in return? This is my business; my fans and my subscribers are affected,'" says Craig Miller.
Beyond the Olympics, the NBA has other concerns. The league is looking at overseas expansion. "We think it will happen down the road, but it won't be anything imminent," says Granik. "We've done some serious analysis of the situation over a year or 18 months. We think the marketplace is really good, but until there are some first-class arenas, it doesn't make sense to do anything. There are plans to build a new building in London and another in Berlin. If you add a few other cities, you might get the critical base that allows us to do it."
The league also wants more offense than the current 93.4 points per game. "We're monitoring it," says Granik. "There are new defensive rules, which allow you to play any defense, subject to the defensive three-second rule, and I think what's happened in the past few years is that teams have finally adapted to that and learned how to do that very well. In the next stage the offenses have to adapt. You're not likely anytime soon to see scores [averaging] over 100, but I think you might see them go up a little bit."
How is this going to happen? "I think we allow a little more contact than we used to on players driving to the basket," Granik says. "So we've addressed that with the officials this year. If you use your forearm to try and slow a player down, then that's a foul. We want as free-
flowing a game as possible. We don't think that will have a huge impact on scoring. There always was contact in the post: just watch a video of Paul Silas and Dave DeBusschere going at it. But there's more contact on the perimeter. So this year we are going to try to clean that up."
But what can a league that had a stratospheric run do for an encore? Starting in 1980, the NBA staged its greatest-ever competition, a rivalry between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers that touched the ether. At the same time it had attractive stars synonymous with that rivalry in Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. By the time that rivalry ebbed, Michael Jordan had established himself as a singular talent learning to mold his mates into six-time champions. What is the follow-up tag to the Johnson-Bird-Jordan era?
During the playoffs last spring, Commissioner David Stern smiled and said, "Michael Who?" suggesting that the league has gotten past the retirement of the game's supernova and forever standard bearer, Michael Jordan. Is it so?
Jordan drew even the casual viewer to the TV set, hoping to get a glimpse of magic. Who fills that role in 2005? Is the commissioner suggesting that anyone in last year's Finals replaced Jordan for sheer "I-just-gotta-see-this-game" magnetism? Listeners were treated to countless Kobe Bryant numbers, especially his "scoring average on nights following days in Colorado," where his rape trial continued. The stats were offered up so frequently that broadcasters managed to pull off the ultimate sleight of hand: no one mentioned that the young "Next Jordan" missed 60 percent of his shots in the Finals. No comparable performance exists in the Jordan annals.
When Bryant beat the rape charges, it hardly mattered to some. In their minds he was a casualty. He had self-exiled himself from the promo lands of Gatorade and McDonald's and entered punkdom, a place from whence he still misses 60 percent of his shots. Then came Ron Artest, who would redefine thug. Not even Latrell Spreewell—who choked his Golden State coach, P. J. Carlesimo, during a practice eight years ago and was suspended for 68 games—served up the kind of water cooler litmus test and crystallized the sensibilities of a nation the way Artest and the brawl would.
Many opinions have come forth since the incident, many as errant as a Shaq free throw. Charles Barkley—who never runs out of incendiary remarks—holds the remarkable view that Artest was "defending himself." In actuality, he was retaliating. Defending himself was required only after he charged into the stands, where all the rules changed. The argument that Artest's fury was motivated by race is also specious. If the cup that landed on him had been thrown by a black Detroit fan, would Artest not have vaulted into the stands? No, this was unchecked rage. Artest is the same guy who had seven prior league suspensions and who, weeks prior to the fight, had the chutzpah to ask for time off from his onerous schedule to promote his rap album. Artest needs help. Until he gets it, basketball talent and adolescent idiocy will be running neck and neck, competing for dominance in his life.
Yet with Stern decrees triumphing over chaos, there's no reason to think that the league can't leap past this incident. It won't be easy, but talent still abounds among the circuit's players.
"Look, I think we have a lot of great players in the league now," Granik says. "There is a lot of interest about how McGrady is going to do on Houston with Yao [Ming], and before that in Shaq and Kobe. And then James and Anthony look like they can be scorers. Getting Michael Jordan you can't anticipate; he was a unique talent. But there are a lot of new players in the game, and remember, these players are only the age Jordan was when he was a sophomore in college. I think the stars are there and will continue to be there. As for the Celtics and Lakers—that was a particular high-water mark in the NBA, because year after year you had a great competition between them. That's something that happens by chance because of where players land and how teams are put together. We've had some good rivalries recently with San Antonio and Los Angeles [Lakers], but whether it achieves that status I don't know. Baseball has one now in the Red Sox and the Yankees. Those things don't last forever. But eventually you see other ones develop."
Stu Jackson agrees with the sanguine prognosis. "There is strength in numbers; there are great young players in this league: Duncan, Garnett, Iverson, McGrady, Bryant—the list goes on and on." Detroit was a throw-back champion, beating the favored Lakers. "I think Detroit was terrific and I don't think there was any basketball fan around the world who didn't appreciate the way they won the championship—with grit and teamwork. One can argue that this is the way basketball is supposed to be played."
No doubt. But for fans of the old NBA game—and the Olympics—the previous act will be a tough one to follow.
Kenneth Shouler, who lives in Harrison, New York, was managing editor of and a writer for Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia (Toronto: Sports Media Group, 2004).