Thirty years after our Civil War broke out, a Canadian named James Naismith concocted an activity for a group of bored Northeastern American youth: basketball. Dr. Naismith considered himself quite fortunate at the age of 75 to be able to witness basketball becoming an Olympic sport in 1936. If he could see the state of his game in America right now, he'd be spinning in his grave faster than our president's head when someone uses a three-syllable word.
The game James Naismith invented was a team game, geared for five-on-five action. Today's NBA is all about shoe contracts, rap videos and drop-top Bentleys. While the basketball currently being played in the professional ranks is admittedly thrilling with its high-flying jams and outlandish individual performances, the players don't seem to have the same "team" concept as superstars past like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson or even Air Jordan himself. That's why I'm rooting for the United States to go without a medal in Olympic basketball this year.
Before you go calling me a flag-burner or a commie bastard, check out what I have to say. In watching our desperately assembled squadron of millionaires, one thing becomes glaringly obvious: We have lost sight of what basketball is supposed to be all about. Almost every team we played in the exhibition matches from Germany (who only lost because Allen "I Don't Believe in Practice" Iverson heaved in a 30-footer) to Italy (who beat us and rubbed our collective nose in it) seems to get the idea of team basketball. Without mastering the fundamentals, like rotating over on defense to help your teammate, a group of individual talents simply cannot beat a team that executes well.
Today's NBA game sports horrid shooting percentages, little attention to defense and tenuous relationships between players and coaches. Try telling your stud that he should look to pass to an open man, and you'll soon be getting your coaching résumé in order. I remember the basketball of my coming-of-age years, when Bird and "Ain't Got AIDS Yet" Johnson would have done anything to get their teams a championship banner. Today's stars play for their contracts only, with a side order of adulation from their posses.
Basketball in the United States needs to return to its roots. I am fully aware that we live in a country of excess where the almighty dollar is worshipped, but basketball was never intended to reflect that reality. The reason the Europeans, Asians, Africans and hopefully Antarcticans will defeat us is because we no longer respect the core value of basketball: teamwork. The U.S. Olympic committee culls the ranks of the professional roundballers and comes up with Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and a bunch of scrubs? Of them, at least Duncan gets the fundamental concepts of team basketball. But look at the rest of our team: Marbury? Marion? Odom? No offense to these gifted players, but if we're going to court professionals then where's Shaq? Garnett? Kobe? The U.S. Olympic basketball team is going to be disassembled by any international squad that can hit the outside jumper and play at least minimal defense.
Rather than lament my prediction, I want you to celebrate it. Perhaps the United States' early exit in the Olympics will serve as a wake-up call. Owners of NBA teams will start to realize that basketball is worth saving, and build squads around great team players rather than individual superstars. Granted, these superstars fill seats in arenas and count for millions of dollars in merchandise sales ... but if the very soul of the sport they play is raped in the process, is it worth the cost? The Detroit Pistons winning the NBA championship this past year is an encouraging sign. A team of lesser-known and unheralded players overcame a team with two prima donnas and a bunch of scrubs. Unfortunately for Detroit coach Larry Brown, he has gone from coaching a bunch of guys who could be talked into playing as a team to baby-sitting a collective of egomaniacs. Do yourself a solid and watch the first few rounds of Olympic basketball and you'll see the rest of the world torment our spoiled little babies with finesse and accuracy, which ironically were the two qualities Dr. Naismith highlighted when outlining his creation of basketball.
I really hope I'm wrong on this one, and that our boys truly do understand what team basketball is all about. There are two guys we're going to put on the floor who will reveal this: LeBron and Carmelo. Both of them joined the NBA last year as teenagers, and to say that they're the future of the league is a vast understatement. Together they account for close to 200 million of Nike's bucks, but whether or not they can rely on each other to commit to playing unselfish ball remains to be seen. The influx of international players into the NBA can only improve the quality of play, as evidenced by the flourishing careers of Yao Ming (China) and Dirk Nowitzki (Germany). Unfortunately for us, these players haul ass to represent their native lands when the Olympics roll around every four years. Despite the fact that their paychecks now come from the NBA, the international players never lose track of the fact that basketball is about fundamental team play. With the international rules knocking the Americans off-kilter, this is going to get ugly. Let me reiterate that I do indeed love this fine country of ours, but I also have a love for basketball the way it's supposed to be played. I truly believe you'll see that in the medal rounds of Olympic basketball.