Phil Sheridan: For U.S. men, Olympic basketball more like exhibition than competition

Posted: July 30, 2012

LONDON - The Olympic basketball exhibition began Saturday with the American Globetrotters blasting the French Generals, 98-71.

It wasn't a game so much as a show, and it really was hard to watch without thinking of NBA commissioner David Stern's proposal to place an age limit on Team USA. Would the Olympics and the FIBA World Championships be better, more competitive tournaments with an under-23 restriction?

That isn't really Stern's concern. The commissioner cares about his league, and his league is run by the franchise owners. They don't care for the players they pay millions risking injury and taking tread off their tires in the Olympics. The quality of Olympic competition is an afterthought.

For many people, myself included, it should be the main consideration. The Dream Team concept made sense in 1992, when the U.S. felt the need to reclaim its own sport. It was a novelty for a few Olympic cycles. When it got a bit stale by 2004, the U.S. lost to Argentina and sparked a new round of we'll-show-them restructuring.

Longtime NBA exec Jerry Colangelo was put in charge. He hired Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. After routing France, the Globetrotters are 55-1 under their guidance.

"I wouldn't say it was easy," Deron Williams said. "I thought we played pretty well defensively."

It was easy. It was boring. And the rest of the tournament isn't going to be much better. Spain might give the U.S. a game in the gold-medal round, but that's about it.

To make matters worse, much of the coverage by the U.S. media is deliberately dishonest. Going into the tournament, the buzz was about how small Team USA is. With Dwight Howard injured, Tyson Chandler is the only 7-footer on the team. Could this leave the U.S. vulnerable? There are NBA players on other national teams, too, you know.

Please. If the U.S. doesn't win gold with this roster, Krzyzewski and Colangelo shouldn't just be replaced, they should be publicly shamed - maybe force them to wear Craig Sager's old jackets everywhere they go.

All of that reads like an endorsement of Stern's proposal, but it's not. Personally, I'd rather watch track or gymnastics or swimming or 10-meter air-rifle shooting than Olympic basketball. This is the biggest and best competition in the world in most of the sports here. Men's basketball, men's soccer, and tennis are the exceptions. In the Olympics, those serve mostly as chances for wealthy superstars - LeBron! Serena! Federer! - to add gold medals to their trophy cases.

But you know what? That's fine. Star power makes the Games more appealing and more fun for the fans who pay exorbitant prices for tickets or simply watch at home. If you tune in to catch James Harden's big dunk against France, maybe you'll notice the incredible vault prowess of gymnast McKayla Maroney.

The Olympics are a big celebration of the world's greatest athletes. The Games aren't going to be better by forcing Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant to stay home.

So Bryant was right when he said Stern's proposal is a "stupid idea. It should be a choice." And Bryant has made that choice twice, representing the U.S. instead of kicking back in the offseason and enjoying his millions of dollars.

Diana Taurasi, who knows a little bit about dominating opponents, put it best the other day.

"They don't drop Wimbledon just because Federer wins it every year," Taurasi said. "Don't you want the best team, the best person to win?"

It's funny to be having this debate here, since England is one of the few nations left that hasn't really warmed up to basketball. Fans here would still rather see Beckham than Bryant.

But Beijing four years ago? The NBA players were enormous sensations. Brazil four years from now? The basketball venues will be insane.

These international competitions have helped the NBA and basketball to explode in popularity all around the world. One suspects Stern doesn't think the league can derive any more benefit, as if the Olympics existed only to help build the NBA's brand.

Instead of focusing on the hapless series of Generals they'll face - the Tunisian Generals are next up, on Tuesday - the trick is to enjoy the consummate skills of the Globetrotters themselves. They aren't going to be seriously challenged. So it isn't really a competition. But it can be enjoyed as an exhibition by the most talented basketball team possible.

"I think we can take it to another level," Durant said after a 27-point laugher. "It's just a lot of fun to see a group of guys, these kinds of players, playing together."

It's more like going to see the Philadelphia Orchestra than a battle of the bands. And that's fine, if you want to watch the Globetrotters trot.

For everyone else, there's plenty of Olympics to go around.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com, or follow @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

 

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