Archive for Sunday, May 1, 2005

Commentary: Restoring U.S. basketball difficult task

May 1, 2005

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— As we speak, Jerry Colangelo is making fire and stacking blocks of brimstone. He's thumbing through "Hank Iba's Great Quotations." He's drinking raw eggs for breakfast, his heart thumping to the beat of "Eye of the Tiger."

He's determined to restore the U.S. men's basketball team to world domination. And he's a loser before he even starts.

Colangelo is well-intentioned, no doubt. Why else would he accept the position of managing director of the senior U.S. men's team? It's not as if the job has become any more attractive since last summer, when the U.S. team bumbled and clanked its way to the bronze medal at the Athens Olympics.

There no longer is anything dreamy about the Dream Team. Where once an accomplished star such as the Warriors' Chris Mullin was glad to sign up as a bit player for the greater good, today's NBA stars want no part of international play.

Last year's U.S. Olympic team was thrown together on the fly because NBA players who participated in qualifying games in August 2003 decided they had no taste for more of the same in 2004. When the Olympics were over, the team's best player, Tim Duncan, had this to say about his international career:

"I'm about 95 percent certain (it is) over," he said. "(It stinks)."

So that's one problem Colangelo faces as he tries to get the U.S. basketball team back to where it used to be -- namely, winning every game and every gold medal in every Olympics.

Another would be the same problem that afflicts a number of groups that enjoyed near-ceaseless success in a simpler time:

The notion that those good times should, could and can happen anew.

Look, a lot of people wish it were 1964 again -- the U.S. Olympic basketball team, Notre Dame's football team, Boston Celtics fans, Herman's Hermits, the Democratic National Committee. It's fun to be successful. It's even more fun to be 10 times more talented than your competition.

Basketball was invented in this country, and for decades no other country had the wherewithal or the desire to be as good as we were. The U.S. men won the first seven Olympic gold medals, and did so with our best players tied behind our backs. It was only after a team of American collegians had to settle for the bronze in 1988 that we started assembling dream teams. The bounce from that strategy lasted until Athens, when a team of the NBA's finest was throttled in Greece.

It wasn't an aberration -- our national team finished sixth in the 2002 World Championships. Colangelo, the Phoenix Suns chairman, has some ideas on how to reverse the trend. Most of them are sound. He wants tryouts. He wants a two-year commitment from players and coaches. He wants players with complementary skills, and not just a team of stars.

He is free to institute whatever changes he wants, given that he has been granted dictatorial powers in his new position. Which is fine until the point where he tries to tell an NBA player:

"You'll show up when and where you're told to show up."

That's going to be a hard sell for a number of reasons, many of which were preying on Duncan's mind when he so eloquently excused himself from the international game last August. The international game is a different beast, played by slightly different rules under the watchful eyes of wildly inconsistent referees.

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