Aim for the Body Rare
The US Olympic team infuses me with a level of glee mostly incommensurate to the amount I care about the competition itself. On a basic level, the sight of Kidd throwing full-court outlets and Kobe molesting Euroleaguers taps into a fantasy for games to become extended YouTube clips, as if these games existed solely so we could imagine alternate universes in which LeBron has four all-star teammates and hamburgers eat people.
Yet, for as much as these games hold my interest, I struggle to make any legitimate observations about them that trumpet the importance of Olympic basketball. Because these games are so thrilling as showcases for our glorious nation’s best talent in a competitive atmosphere, I try to think up ways to make players approach the All-Star Game more like this, without the overbearing need to “put on a show” that turns many mid-winter classics into collections of the greatest turnovers in history. Likewise, when a foreign team beats the Americans, I try to imagine how aspects of those teams’ games can be applied to the NBA.
When I mentioned these issues to Shoals earlier this week, he accused me of practicing a subtle form of Amerocentrism. Frankly, he’s right: there’s no reason to deny the fact that the United States’ recent international losses are just as important as victories for Greece, Spain, et al. But this Amerocentrism seems at least somewhat indirect. After all, my interest would only increase if Dirk replaced Michael Redd on the roster without the aid of reverse-Kaman shenanigans. This interest isn’t about jingoistic fervor – it’s about a belief that the NBA features basketball far more relevant than anything the Olympics can produce. And, if this opinion can be held by hardcore basketball fans in the country in which the sport is most popular, then what importance does international success really hold for developing national basketball scenes? Do Argentinians secretly pine for the day when Walter Hermann decides to skip the Olympics to pursue his erotic dreams?
To be sure, the short-term national pride that follows a medal plays a huge role here, particularly for those countries that lack a long history of athletic success. But big victories every two or four years can’t substitute for the evergreen international relevance of having an insanely popular league operating on your soil. On some level, an internationally legitimate pro league must be a basketball culture’s ultimate goal, if only because the constant attention afforded to it presents basketball as a worthy alternative to more traditional sports in those nations. As important as Greece’s FIBA win over the United States was for the Greek game, the Childress deal (and any future continent-jumpers) is a more telling sign of that country’s basketballular development. On-court and financial milestones certainly operate in a feedback loop, but year-long financial competition will eventually provide the biggest challenge to the NBA monopoly on talent.
If you’re like Ugly American Me, it’s very hard even to try to see the world through the eyes of someone who talks funny and lives in a far-off land, so let’s look at a similar example of something a little closer to home: American soccer. For the majority of high-level European club teams, Olympic soccer is a two-week nuisance of a tournament that only serves to injure players in meaningless games. Simply put, the leagues don’t need it to succeed in the marketplace, with one league, the German Bundesliga, initially refusing to release its players and only acquiescing after a FIFA-issued mandate. The NBA’s global ambition lends Olympic basketball more importance than soccer clubs give to their tournament, but all these leagues, at their core, would still dominate without the Olympics. Now, soccer has the World Cup and various continental tournaments to serve that global role, but the general idea is the same: club teams take the lead, and international tournaments serve mainly to drive interest in the players who perform year-round for their clubs.
The US Men’s National Team has featured few, if any European stars outside of goalkeepers, which puts them in a position roughly analogous to that of the Greek basketball team that defeated the Americans two years ago. If US Soccer were to defeat, say, the Brazil or Argentina in Beijing, it would be an upset on the same level as that of the Greeks. Even if such an event was talked about in terms of national pride at the time, the overriding national sentiment would be that these soccer players are legitimate and deserve to be seen more than once every two years. The MLS Cup wouldn’t shoot to the top of the Nielsens for the month, but Olympic success would undoubtedly help drive some interest in the league. From a strategic standpoint, Olympic success is the means by which less successful national soccer organizations reach a critical mass within their own countries. It follows that American and African national teams typically put much more stock in Olympic success than other countries, if only because international tournament stand as rare chances to ignite national interest around pride and build stronger soccer infrastructures within their countries. On some level, the English federations no longer need the Olympics – the World Cup is enough.
Except that, even though the Premiership dominates the international marketplace, clubs like Liverpool release for participation key players who they could legally block from participating in the Olympics. Moves like these show exactly why this league is seen as the best in the world even though it arguably features an inferior product: they understand direct marketing to parts of the world where people cannot easily view these players. Not surprisingly, the Bundesliga is slowly losing popularity in every country outside of Germany, which suggests that their refusal to release stars like Brazil’s Diego is a sign of a larger problem.
Let’s return to basketball before I start referring to alley-oops as volleys. When we look at Olympic basketball through the prism of soccer, we can see that things like China’s steadfast decision to make Yao Ming play a full national-team schedule every summer is understandable, as it is the best way for them to increase their national – and therefore international – hold on popular athletics. Without sustained success in international competitions, these countries are doomed to occupy a middling spot in basketball culture for the foreseeable future.
But, even if the Americans lose this tournament, it’s hard to imagine David Stern and the NBA not coming out of this tournament as the biggest winners. The fact remains that the league and, lest we forget, Nike are exposing themselves to the largest untapped marketplace in the world, and my fantasies of All-Star Game perfection are exuberance is exactly the kind of reaction that Stern seeks to provoke from more than a billion people. This is a Dream Team in the truest sense of the name: they’re in Beijing to make minds race about the possibilities of the league, a place where Kidd hits Melo in stride from 90 feet away and CP3 and Deron one-up each other even as they reach for the same goals.