Sometimes, dreams turn into nightmares.
The United States is or, rather, was indescribably dominant in men's basketball. In 1988, a team of American college-age players lost to a team of Russian professionals in the Olympics, and that was a big upset. In 1992, the United States sent professional players to the Olympics; that team became known as the "Dream Team" and steamrolled the competition. The closest of their eight games was the gold medal match, a 117-85 win over Croatia.
In following Olympics and World Championships (which take place in the summer between Olympics), the United States continued to send professional players, but the games were no longer blowouts. This was due to the rest of the world catching up to the Americans, and to the fact that many top American players begged off the national team, hoping for a summer of rest. The culmination of this process was the 2000 Olympics, in which the U.S. defeated Lithuania by only two points in the semifinal. (More on this game is at the node United States 85, Lithuania 83.)
Well, that was the culmination. Until the 2002 World Championships, when the United States actually lost ... three times! The U.S. finished in sixth place, behind Spain and New Zealand! I personally follow basketball pretty well, and I can name only one player from either of those teams, Pau Gasol of Spain.
As I watched the U.S. lose to Argentina, the first loss ever in international competition by American professionals, I felt conflicted. Part of me felt embarrased for my country, while part of me was rooting for Argentina to kick America's ass, because the U.S. was playing so terribly. And that made me feel even more embarrassed for my country.
So what the hell happened?
Let's go to the experts.
"The easy explanation the NBA gives is that players around the world are catching up to those in the United States. Are they? I don’t like to think this way, but it seems that we’re dropping down to their level."
Former collegiate coach Pete Newell.
"You can't just throw together an NBA All-Star Team like a Cobb Salad, then expect them to dominate internationally."
ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons.
In his article, Simmons argued that the U.S. roster was fundamentally flawed, starting with coach George Karl. Newell, on the other hand, said that for various reasons, the U.S. has stopped producing capable centers, and the lack of a post presence killed the American team. (Links to both articles can be found at the bottom of the w/u.)
For the record, Newell is gung-ho about centers he runs a famous "big-man camp" and Simmons is a little crazy, though he knows basketball well. Still, their words have merit.
Here's the U.S. roster:
This is a weird team. The best players are either point guards or small forwards; the only true 2-guard is about 8,000 years old; and only two of the big men are legitimate scoring threats (Brand and LaFrentz, and LaFrentz is a perimeter player).
And that was the downfall of the United States. Baron Davis and Andre Miller would play at the same time, but neither felt comfortable at the 2-guard position, which helped contribute to turnovers and poor offensive sets. And when the going got tough, the offense had no outlet under the basket to pass to for an easy bucket, and there were few players who could create their own shots.
More glaring is the lack of certain players. Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan are true centers, but they were both nursing injuries during the summer of 2002. Kobe Bryant, Mike Bibby and Allen Iverson are all star perimeter players who have shown time and again in the NBA playoffs that they can carry a team when nothing else is working. The only similiar player on the 2002 team was Reggie Miller, and he's a flat-footed spot-shooter. (Plus, he's 8,000 years old.) Heck, even Chris Webber or Vince Carter could have helped this team, even though they're both total pussies.
And I would be remiss in not acknowledging the great performances by other teams. Argentina had been practicing together for nine months and played a perfect game against the Americans. Yugoslavia, which would eventually win the title, played a great game in beating the U.S. 81-78. And then Spain did it a third time, winning 81-75 in the fifth-place game.
So is the Dream Team dead? Will the U.S. win the 2004 Olympics gold medal?
Damned if I know. I'm still embarrassed for my country.
Thanks to baritalia for clearing up a rather dumb mistake.