USA Basketball: What Happened?

This wasn’t supposed to happen. It’s like all of a sudden the Harlem Globetrotters started losing all of their games to the Washington Generals and the New York Nationals. In 1992, when United States Basketball started using NBA players in international competition, critics thought it wasn’t fair. After all, how could China, Puerto Rico, and the Netherlands compete with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and the rest of the Dream Team? The United States would dominate, just like the Harlem Globetrotters do in every one of their exhibitions. USA Basketball walked all over their opponents, compiling an 8-0 record, and bringing home the gold medal in 1992. The dominance continued with U.S. gold medals in both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. Then, IT happened. The United States began to stumble. In the 2004 Olympics, the U.S. collapsed in an opening round game and lost to Puerto Rico. It must have just been a huge upset. Until it happened again and the U.S. lost to Lithuania. Before you knew it, USA Basketball lost a third time, this time to Argentina, and crawled home with a bronze medal. How could this be? The U.S. basketball team had been successful when they were using only amateur players, so how could they suddenly be struggling with professionals?

There are a number of factors that have led to the struggles of the U.S. basketball team. For starters, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson have long since retired. Over the last several years, many of the best players in the NBA have opted out of playing for USA Basketball. Perhaps you can blame it on the grind of having to play year round. At the end of an 82 game season and playoffs, some players, especially those fighting injuries, simply don’t have enough in the tank to continue playing through the summer. Yao Ming did this for a few years, playing both in the NBA and for his Chinese National team in the off season. It wore down his body and contributed to him injuring his foot this past season. So, the U.S. began fielding teams of good players, but not their best players.

Also, the rest of the world has simply gotten better. With the success and popularity of the NBA, basketball games are broadcast worldwide. The interest and level of play around the globe have grown exponentially. This increase in overseas talent has brought international players to the NBA. Now, fans from foreign countries can watch their own countrymen compete against the world’s best in the NBA. This is leading to more youngsters around the world taking up basketball, which increases the quality of international players. Another factor, is that most other national teams compete together year round. Contrast this, with the fact that U.S. players only practice together for a few weeks before international competition begins. The teamwork and chemistry of foreign squads has simply been better than that of the U.S.

So, what can be done to get the U.S. back on top? A big step was made this past year when Jerry Colangelo, the new director of USA Basketball, decided to revitalize the entire program. They started by hiring coach Mike Krzyzewski, from Duke University, to a three year contract to build some consistency. Gone are the days when the U.S. could just suit up some NBA stars, roll out the ball, and bring home the gold medal. USA Basketball needs to put a program in place, so there is consistency and a formula for future success. If anyone can get U.S. basketball back on the right track, it’s Coach K. Coach K has been focusing on defense and teamwork, while putting the NBA stars through three hour practices.

Their first test will come on August 19th, when the USA plays Puerto Rico in the first round of the FIBA World Championship. The hope is that Team USA can bring home the gold from the FIBA World Championship in Japan. This would be a positive first step on their way to reclaiming their perch at the top of the basketball world. The real test, however, will be at the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing, China. With the Olympics being held in Yao Ming’s homeland, the world spotlight will be brighter than ever when the U.S. plays China. Anything short of a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics will be considered another failure for USA Basketball. Despite the recent struggles of USA Basketball, I think they are back on the right track. Coach K is a proven leader and winner that the NBA players will listen to and respect. Hopefully, success at the World Championship this summer will build some positive momentum heading into Beijing in 2008. One thing is for certain: all eyes will be watching.

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