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Best individual talent not enough

Don Rogers

It turns out that basketball is bigger than America. The struggles of the U.S. men’s Olympic team to win a bronze medal was less a loss for our country than a gain for the game.The world is catching up. On all fronts, for good and for ill. Our leadership inevitably must take a new direction. China is fast catching up with us in the use of fossil fuels and steel. Soon they’ll be as bad a resource glutton and polluter as we are per capita. Global warming be damned.Meantime, our women took gold in soccer. Soccer! That’s not America’s game. We’ve made a ton of progress in the most popular sport worldwide, one that still struggles for attention here.I make too much of games here, of course. But the Olympics are all about symbolism. Us softies would like that symbolism to be all about peaceful competition and sportsmanship. But not long ago it was Cold War parody, to the point the Eastern Bloc doped up so much that even the women were men in an effort to dominate on the sports field if they couldn’t quite get there on the global chessboard.Before that, Jesse Owens showed the lie of Hitler’s Germanic haughtiness before we had to fight a world war to truly settle the question.And now, doping runs rampant on an individual basis, and we seem to be the worst of all. Not as a country or a team, but as individuals trying to get that edge. Which brings us back to the message of the U.S. basketball team falling to third for the first time with a roster of pros. How could the best set of players in the world lose to the likes of Puerto Rico, Lithuania, Argentina?Best players, but not the best team, at least not in this tournament. And while our players were still the best collection of individual talent in the world, they weren’t even the best in this country. Our very best sat this one out, for one reason or another, including a rape trial all too close to home in Eagle County.The other countries put out their cream of the crop, who have played together as national teams far longer than ours, and it showed. I loved it, actually. Passing trumped ball hogging, crisp outside shooting beat the spectacular but rare athletic dunk. And sure, luck played its part.The U.S. team missed a lot of shots our players normally make, and if our very best players could have mustered themselves to play, chances are that individual talent would still prevail.But after reading U.S. point guard Stephon Marbury quoted in The New York Times recounting a conversation with legend Isiah Thomas saying, “You ain’t no buster; you ain’t no dude that’s out there running around passing and screening,” I didn’t mind at all if the U.S. lost its way out of the medals entirely.This is precisely what’s wrong with the American game. Passing and screening – along with some other key fundamentals – that’s how the world has caught up.Countries with a tiny fraction of our talent pool figured out that the game is bigger than the players. We didn’t dominate because our fellows were too caught up with being stars. Funny, there was Argentina’s star, Manu Ginobli, running around passing and screening his team to the gold medal on Sunday. Some buster.For the sake of the game itself, it was sweet to see the U.S. suffer some comeuppance. Maybe in time, U.S. men’s basketball will follow in the steps of women’s soccer and learn again how to play as a true team.Maybe next Olympics we can field a squad of dudes who run around passing and setting screens. Oh, and maybe playing some defense and hitting some ordinary jumpshots while they are at it. America could stand a little more team first and a lot less me first right now. That’s a lesson worth its weight in gold.Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or editor@vaildaily.com Vail, Colorado


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