Sports Outside the Beltway

Saving U.S. Olympic Basketball

Chuck Klosterman has an interesting if counter-intuitive solution to reclaiming Gold Medal glory: Ditch the NBA superstars in favor if kids too young for the NBA but too dumb for college.

We might not be able to win the Olympic gold medal no matter who we send to Beijing. On the surface, it seems obvious that any U.S. team would be better if it added Kobe and Shaq and KG and Duncan. But there’s an ever-growing body of evidence that suggests individual talent plays an inexplicably minor role in this brand of basketball. The U.S. club was beaten by Greece, a team that does not have one NBA player. Greece was then defeated by Spain, a team whose lone NBA star (Pau Gasol) did not play in the gold-medal game. For some interesting, counterintuitive reason, it seems like star power is a disadvantage in this specific idiom.


When Greece beat the U.S. in the semifinals, it was the greatest day in the history of Greek basketball; in fact, I assume it was the greatest day every member of that Greek squad will ever experience. When Mihalis Kakiouzis is lying on his Athenian deathbed five decades from this summer, he will still be thinking of the day he beat LeBron James in 2006. Who can compete with that kind of emotive intensity? How do you defeat an enemy who’s playing for his self-identity? These are the same reasons America won the Revolutionary War but lost in Vietnam — motivation matters. And it’s unreasonable to expect guys like Dwyane and LeBron to care about beating Argentina more than they care about beating each other.

Which brings us to my plan. Right now, there are dozens (maybe hundreds) of wonderful 18- and 19-year-old D-I and juco basketball players who probably should not be in college. They have no interest in academics; they are attending school only because it’s the best potential avenue for playing basketball professionally. This is bad for the integrity of the university system (obviously), and it’s often bad for the individuals themselves (this desperate dream sets them up for disappointment without preparing them for life). But these are the very kids who could save American basketball. Why don’t we select 15 of these non-scholar-athletes and turn them into the U.S. national team? It would seem to solve a lot of problems at once.

There’s more at the link but that’s the gist of it. He may well be right, given the current framework.

Another alternative is to adjust the framework. It makes little sense for the Olympics and other international competititions to be played by rules other than those used in the United States. After all, we invented the game and it’s still the USA where the most competitive ball is played. So why should our players have to adjust to bizarre rules when they play in these tournaments?

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