15 years ago, the Team USA stepped onto the court in Barcelona as the prohibitive favorite to win the gold medal. From the opening tip-off, there was no doubt that they would succeed with little resistance. The team won all eight of their games with ease, scoring nearly 1,000 points in the process and boasting a ridiculous 43-point average margin of victory; it reminded me of watching the Phoenix Suns romping a high school girls’ basketball team. The “Dream Team”, headed by Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, etched their names into history as one of the most dominant basketball teams to ever step onto the court. The U.S. repeated as champions in Atlanta in 1996 and again at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. But just as it seemed as though no one would ever be able to challenge the USA’s basketball dominance, the unthinkable happened at the Athens Olympics in 2004. The team lost not one, but three games en route to their first medal-less Olympic Games in the last 12 years. This disappointment was exacerbated in 2006 when the U.S. failed to capture a medal at the FIBA World Championships, leaving American basketball fans everywhere scratching their heads.
So what happened? First of all, Team USA is no longer composed of the gods of basketball. There’s no question that the U.S. is still by far the most talented team: their roster is filled from top to bottom with NBA all-stars. However, the competition has improved considerably as the sport of basketball has taken on more of an international flavor. Instead of facing unknown players with little talent, the U.S. now plays against fellow NBA players, many of them all-stars themselves. A feeling of complacency developed when it came to preparing for international competition as well; the role of the U.S. coach used to be minimal because the team’s raw talent could simply overwhelm opponents. In fact, very little effort was spent on scouting and preparing for individual opponents, whereas international teams spent hours in preparation for their games against the U.S. While it used to be an honor to compete on the Olympic team, American players started refusing to participate on the team. Coaches never cared enough to construct a well-balanced team, and as the competition improved, the team’s flaws began to show. The American lineup in Greece was undersized and inconsistent, and was shown the door because of this. The international game relies heavily on catch-and-release shooting, which is not as much of an emphasis in the American game. American basketball focuses on one-on-one match-ups, which are less effective when the opposition uses zone defenses (as most international teams do).
So what’s been done to change the situation? Hall of Fame Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski was brought in this season to give the team a fresh perspective. Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, and Carmelo Anthony comprise Coach K’s all-star combo, mirroring the Bird/Magic/Jordon trio of old. The Suns’Amare Stoudemire has replaced Chris Bosh and is expected to split minutes with Dwight Howard at the five spot, giving the team more power inside. Michael Redd and Mike Miller have been added to improve perimeter shooting and give the team the vital catch-and-release ability it had been missing. Though Redd and Miller should help in this department, one of the big three (Bryant, James and Melo), would have to put aside their ego and sit out critical minutes to let the perimeter men play.
So what does the future hold? The last three years have been a painful time for USA basketball fans, but the retooled team’s dominant performance in this week’s Olympic qualifier shows a transition in team attitude. There seems to be greater team chemistry and a greater desire to win as the US approaches the upcoming 2008 Beijing Olympics. Combine these factors with the immense amount of talent that steps on the floor every time the team gets into uniform and you can expect America to reclaim its position atop the world basketball stage.