Playing the US at the Olympics is distorted sport. You start with a known result and backfill with a game. This was Australia’s experience on Wednesday night, again.
The game was cute enough in its own right. The Boomers began the first half brightly, and the second half brilliantly, but inexorably were overwhelmed. LeBron James, no introduction needed, had a triple double, which is a lot of everything. The first in Olympic history. In the second half, geriatric Kobe Bryant suddenly returned to the fountain of youth, draining two strings of three consecutive three-pointers, exaggerating the margin, but only a little. This is not to diminish Australia’s effort, nor coach Brett Brown’s initiative. Simply, this is how it is for everyone at the Olympics.
US coach Mike Krzyzewski praised Australia as ”athletic, quick and well coached”. Everybody praised Patty Mills. ”Every time I see him, he gets better and better,” said Bryant (curious, because mostly when he looks he is sitting on the San Antonio bench). These niceties and platitudes are also part of the Olympic basketball ritual. Rueful honesty emerges between the lines. When asked what else Australia might have done, Joe Ingles said: ”Seen their team?”
We have, over and over. Team USA’s all-time Olympic record is now 128-5. Since NBA players were admitted in 1992, the American men have lost only three games, all by the slovenly team in Athens in 2004.
This team is being compared to the original Dream Team from 1992, led by Michael Jordan. It features Bryant, said by Krzyzewski to be in the top 10 all-time greats, ”maybe top five”, and James, said by American basketball writer and nut Bill Simmons to be already in the top 20 ATGs, and bound for No.2.
That’s not all. When the US went on their last-quarter rampage last night their starting five were on the bench. And let’s not mention the players who couldn’t be here because of injury. Here are four warps into which Olympic basketball falls.
1. The Olympics should be for sports for whom this is the pinnacle. It is for everyone except the team that no one can beat.
2. The US team’s performance falls into that modern no-man’s land between competitive sport and entertainment. The US team is a marvel to watch. You could sum it up this way: the other teams in the tournament have big blokes and athletic blokes. The US have big, athletic blokes. And heavily tattooed. Other athletes are in awe. EVERYONE is in awe. At the US team’s introductory press conference, there were at least 2000 ”reporters”.
3. In an alternative and disconnected universe in the US, aficionados analyse this team as if it is some sort of cut-throat competition, writing long dissertations fretting, for instance, about its lack of size. ”The best player in 20 years is playing with our most talented roster in 20 years,” said Simmons, ”and incredibly, I’m worried that we might blow the gold medal because we’re too small.”
4. Praise is lavished on the US players for everyday civilities, such as sometimes travelling on public transport, and talking to people. Partly, this is reflexive. Early iterations of the Dream Team were simply obnoxious. As recently as Athens, they was sniffy. Since, they have made an effort, dropping the Dream Team appellation and presenting a humbler face. Comparatively, they are team of charmers. But they still do not stay in the athletes’ village, preferring to be sequestered in a hotel.
The bind for basketball at the Olympics is that it cannot do without the US – indeed would look ridiculous without US representation – but cannot have an authentic competition with the US and its institutionalised invincibility. Australia’s biggest mistake in these Games, as in Beijing, was to be careless enough to catch the US in a crossover; otherwise the Boomers fancied themselves for a medal. ”I feel we could compete with all of them here,” coach Brett Brown said. ”The US is something different.”
Moves are afoot to scrap the US team in its current form and send a college all-star team or an under-23 team like the football sides. James, for one, opposes it. ”Because I’m 27.”
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