As this is written, America’s overpaid, underinspired and outplayed Olympian basketball team has lost to Puerto Rico and Lithuania.
Larry Brown still may be able to galvanize his team of all-stars into playing like a team, but as these lines are typed he’s running out of time.
Sportswriters can lament that if only Shaq and Kobe and Kevin Garnett had been there things would be different, but they aren’t there, and the guys who are there are not some junior college bunch.
Richard Jefferson, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Shawn Marion and Lamar Odom are being painted as young and inexperienced. However, in the world of American professional sports, they represent hundreds of millions of dollars in salaries. These guys are millionaire athletes, not YMCA pickups. The fact they are not playing well, when even bigger stars chose not to play at all, lets you know how American professional athletes view the Olympics and American pride.
American swimmers did us proud, and the best of them — Michael Phelps — showed Olympian class when he sat out the final relay to give teammate Ian Crocker a chance to win a gold.
It was painful to see America’s vaunted tennis stars, Venus Williams and Andy Roddick, walking off the courts dejectedly after early elimination. It was tough to see an American woman lose the 100-meter sprint for the first time in 24 years. It was irritating to watch Paul Hamm, despite his Jack Armstrong all-American appeal, win a tarnished gold because of scoring mistakes by three judges who were suspended for their mistakes.
It was consoling to see American women assert their superiority in basketball, and it was revealing to hear their explanations of the shortcomings of the American men’s game.
Lisa Leslie, the brightest star in women’s professional basketball who has been performing at her brilliant best in Greece, had it right when she said, "This is basketball at its purest. The men need to get back to the essence of the game." She was talking about teamwork over individual brilliance, noting that the evolution of the professional men’s game has carried it "above the rim." Leslie said that others’ shooting skills "have exposed the weaknesses" of the American game.
If the high paid men appear unconcerned about losing to nonentities, and comfortable with their lofty status in the money game back home, Larry Brown is not. His years of experience told him early that this was a team of individual stars, not a cohesive unit. The fact that they were second choices rather than first picks should not have made a difference, but it did.
We Americans like to think of ourselves as above the crowd, with the tallest buildings, the fastest airplanes, the shiniest cars, the best athletes.
There are others out there, from places unheard of, with equal talents. Most Americans could not tell you for big bucks where Belarus is, but a girl named Yuliya Nesterenko outran America’s best runners, or at least those that scandal did not keep from running the 100-meter sprint, an American possession in the past.
If you had told NBA fanatics that a guy named Sarunus Jasikevicius from Lithuania could score 28 points and take America’s finest apart on the basketball court, scoring 10 of those points in a pivotal 69 seconds late in the game, they would have scoffed. But he did.
Getting back to Paul Hamm. He is, as several female sportswriters wrote, "adorable." However, as one precise headline pointed out, "Do Not Mistake Warm and Fuzzy for Just and Fair." He did not win the gymnastic all-around gold. Yang Tae Young of South Korea did. No one, including South Korea’s Olympic gymnastic spokesman, is suggesting Hamm be stripped of his message. He is suggesting a duplicate gold be given to Young, and he is right.
If one is not, the Olympics are Little League. They are more than that. They are bush league.