Hot Topic: One Team, Indivisible
Published in Play, The New York Times Sports Magazine
August 20, 2006
International sport has long been a form of nationalism, if not an outright proxy for war. Why the swell of pride when the United States, amid cold war tensions, defeated the Soviet Union and then won the gold-medal game at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid? For millions of Americans (few of whom actually cared much about hockey), those victories by a squad of plucky underdogs seemed to affirm something about our national character. So what exactly are we to think now that the United States, the last remaining superpower, has become a doormat in the realm of sports?
Our athletes in individual sports -- Lance, Tiger, Venus -- have been capable of transcendent solo performances, and the United States women have won recent world championships in soccer, basketball and softball. But our men's soccer team failed to muster one victory at the World Cup in Germany. The United States baseball team, at the inaugural World Baseball Classic last March, was defeated by Mexico, Korea and Canada -- Canada! -- and could not make it even to the semifinals.
It gets worse. United States basketball, long the most dominant of our national teams, has arguably been the most humiliated. The 1992 Dream Team -- Jordan, Bird, Magic -- brought the American game to the world, a seamless mesh of skill, creativity, improvisation and intuitive teamwork. A mere 12 years later, another Olympic squad of N.B.A. stars, led by the shoot-first point guards Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson and coached by the mercurial Larry Brown, were a dysfunctional mess. On the way to a bronze medal, they lost to Lithuania and got blown out by Puerto Rico.
There is nothing like being beaten at your own game to focus the mind. In preparation for the world championships in Japan (Aug. 19-Sept. 3), the new leadership of men's USA Basketball -- Jerry Colangelo, its managing director, and Coach Mike Krzyzewski, the longtime head man at Duke -- staged a grand experiment. They convinced 24 players to commit to three years of summer training, leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. And even though Colangelo refuses to use the word ''cuts,'' only 12 players can be on the roster for an international competition, meaning several of them are trying out for a team for the first time in many years, or perhaps ever.
Most radical of all, the invitees included not just megastars like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant, but also workhorses like Bruce Bowen, Shane Battier and Chauncey Billups. The hope is that a true national team will emerge rather than a thrown-together group of all-stars.
Our best male athletes have regressed as team players -- as teammates. A couple of decades of free agency and lavish salaries freed the players from the grips of owners but also unbound them from one another. When you play primarily for yourself, and when your most important relationships are with your agent and your shoe-company rep, the concept of playing for your country is pretty abstract.
The new approach of USA Basketball acknowledges that the ethos drilled into previous generations of American players -- pass to a teammate who has a better shot, move without the ball -- must now be taught remedially. As Billy King, the president and general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers and a former player for Krzyzewski at Duke, told me, ''A lot of our players don't trust team play.''
The USA Basketball experiment will be well worth our attention, and not only to see if the team can win gold at the world championships and the Olympics. I'm more interested in the quality of play that Krzyzewski, a master blender of talent and ego and a West Point-trained former Army officer, can coax from his team. That will reveal whether American basketball fluency has been lost, like some dialect that vanished with its last living speaker, or can be restored with an intense refresher course.
Sports do say a little about national character. If our greatest young athletes don't care enough about one another to commit to effort and team play, that can't be a good thing.
Copyright © 2006