The basketball boards around the Internet are buzzing today with anger and confusion. American fans are in a deep funk about the U.S. loss to Greece in the semifinals. "Greece!" they say. "Greece? They don't play basketball in GREECE!"
Oh yes, they do.
Greece is the reigning European champion and their teams in the Euroleague -- world's second-best professional league after the NBA -- are always among the top five.
But the posters and bloggers analyzing and criticizing are all in denial, if you ask me.
Team USA finished sixth in the worlds in Indianapolis in 2002; third in the Olympics in Athens in 2004; and probably fourth in the worlds in Tokyo in 2006. What is it about the end of U.S. dominance in basketball that you don't understand?
The U.S. produces the best individual players (for now), but they cannot play team basketball as well as the Europeans. Or the South Americans! The 2002 team had George Karl as coach, the 2004 team had Larry Brown, the 2006 team has Mike Krzyzewksi. Those are among the best coaches in U.S. hoops history. They and the players are simply not good enough and one reason may be that the players think they can rely on their raw athleticism and reputation. They can't. Not anymore.
This is not the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. This is not about whether LeBron James holds the ball too long either, or that Chris Paul never played in a big game before in his life, both of which may be true but are irrelevant. This is about the world catching and passing the U.S. in the elements of the game that count the most: TEAM play on both sides of the ball, fundamentals, outside shooting to complement the inside game. And coaching.
My favorite line delivered by those most in denial -- and ignorance -- is: "Well, they couldn't beat the NBA Champs! We should send the NBA champs every year!" The problem is that, increasingly, the NBA champs are dependent on international players. The Heat didn't have any significant international players this year but the most successful NBA franchise over the past decade has been the San Antonio Spurs, winning in 1999, 2003, and 2005.
The Spurs' point guard is from France -- Tony Parker. Their shooting guard is from Argentina -- Manu Ginobili, and their best player and power forward, Tim Duncan, may have played his college ball at Wake Forest, but he learned the game in his native Virgin Islands, not a hotbed of b-ball.
The Suns' Steve Nash of Canada, Boris Diaw of France, Leandro Barbosa of Brazil, and Raja Bell of the Virgin Islands all averaged 14 points a game this year or better -- and their training camp this year will be held in Treviso, Italy!
The Mavs would be nothing without Dirk Nowitzki of Germany. Role players like Desagana Diop of Senegal are also critical to the Dallas success. For most of last year, Mark Cuban had players from Senegal, Russia, Germany, Guyana, and Congo on his payroll.
The Nets, who had the first international superstar in Drazen Petrovic of Croatia, didn't have an international player for years after his death. They now have three -- a starter, Nenad Krstic, a bench player, Bostjan Nachbar, and a rookie, Mile Ilic -- all from the Balkans. They have an international scouting director who is Dutch and has spent the last two weeks in northern Nigeria scouting teenagers!
And we haven't even mentioned China yet. A nation with 500 million self-professed basketball fans -- which some months produces more revenue for the NBA than the U.S. -- has only one player in the NBA. How long will that last? You think it's impossible that sometime in the next 30 years that the NBA commissioner will speak Mandarin--and carry a Chinese passport? I wouldn't bet on it.
This year, one out of every five NBA players held a foreign passport. By 2010, the next world championship, the number will be one out of three if trends continue. Be prepared for more surprises as time passes.
It's not about "fixing" Team USA to assure U.S. dominance of the game invented in Springfield, Mass. (by a Canadian). It's about understanding that the world loves the game and embracing it.