Thursday, December 14, 2017
Sports

Gary Shelton: U.S. Olympic men's basketball team can't win even when it wins

LONDON — Somewhere, Michael Jordan is laughing. Chances are he has been swapping texts with Charles Barkley about the quality of Kobe Bryant's dreams.

Somewhere, David Stern is frowning. By now he has checked a large stack of birth certificates, and he does not like what he sees.

Somewhere, America is yawning. Long ago it labeled these athletes as elitist party-crashers who seem much more interesting when they stumble.

Ah, the poor members of the United States Olympic men's basketball team.

Even when they win, they cannot win.

Take Sunday, when the team won its opening game (but only by 27 points) as Kevin Durant scored 22 (but LeBron James scored only nine). It was an easy stroll over France, 98-71 (although the United States led by only one after the first quarter), that signaled to the rest of the field the Americans are a force again (but only in those moments when the game seems to interest them).

That's the challenge of being an NBA player in the Olympics. No one ever seems satisfied. There always seems to be a grumble of the day about these guys. No one seems happy with the results or the effort or the style or the margin of victory or, when you get down to it, the mere presence of athletes who have already discovered their gold elsewhere.

Yet, they are here. They want to be here. They play the right way, and they say the right things, and they pledge the right allegiances. Bryant, for instance, swears he would prefer to stay in the athletes village — the team is staying at a hotel — and he talks about watching weight lifters and divers and archers with the enthusiasm of a tourist. Yes, he sounds sincere.

Still, a lot of people seem prepared to see this team fail. Some of them seem eager to see that.

Why? Maybe it is because the United States has been so dominant that watching it lose has become an event, like watching an opposing pitcher throw a no-hitter. Maybe it is because of the impression NBA players don't struggle for years to compete in the pinnacle of their sport the way, say, hammer throwers do. Maybe it is that every so often, players tend to say clumsy things about getting paid to play in the Olympics or beating legends or having a proposed age-group cutoff for the Games.

Bryant, for instance, keeps talking about how this current group of players would beat the '92 U.S. "Dream Team," the first Olympic team with NBA players. Jordan, a member of that team, had the best response to that: He laughed. You should, too.

Bryant should know better. A present-day athlete cannot win when he compares himself to a legend without sounding arrogant. Michael Phelps, for instance, has never compared himself to Mark Spitz; he lets others do it.

"People don't think we can beat that ('92) team?" Bryant said the other day. "That's silly. I didn't say we were a better team. The question was, can we beat them? Yes, we can. Of course we can."

This might surprise you, but I agree. Yes, this team could beat the Dream Team. Once.

That's all. Once in a seven-game series, maybe twice in a 27-game series. The '92 team had better big men, better point guards. It had 11 players who went into the Hall of Fame. Put it this way: I'm not sure this team could beat the '96 Olympic team.

On the other hand, I think this team should beat anyone else here. If France is indeed an example of how the world has reduced the basketball gap, then the planet needs to take a few more orbits. The French team, for instance, hit 1 of 11 three-pointers in the first half of Sunday's game. In the second half, it also hit 1-of-11. Yeah, that's the stuff to ruin dreams, all right.

The thing is, everyone who quibbles about NBA stars in the Olympics may get their way. NBA commissioner David Stern, a man who should be enjoying all this dominance (four gold medals in the past five Olympics), has suggested it may be time to go to a competition for players younger than 23.

"Stupid," is the adjective Bryant uses.

"I don't agree with it," said James.

Why not? "Because I'm 27."

It's a silly idea, and once the TV networks throw a little more cash in the general direction of the NBA, one I'm sure will fade quietly.

The paste is out of the tube now. The idea of the athlete who trains for four years to get to the Olympics is nice, but that happens in few sports now. Swimmers are rich. Track stars are rich. Tennis players are rich. The soccer players who get the overage exemptions in their under-23 tournament (three per team) are rich. And so on.

So what are you going to do? Make the entire Olympics an under-23 competition? Of course not.

Maybe this basketball team can change that. Maybe it can win the gold medal. Maybe it can win the title game by 50. Maybe it can make Jordan stand and cheer.

Who knows? Maybe it can do the impossible.

Maybe it can make everyone happy.

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