Monday, July 28, 2008

USA Basketball as a microcosm of the USA today

It was 1992. The wall had fallen only a few years before. Communism was virtually dead. We had enjoyed a quick and easy victory in Iraq (GW1, at least seemed easy). Long live the free market, democracy and the USA.

That was when arguably the best set of talent in one sport had ever been assembled to play together for the Olympic Games in Barcelona. Who knew that would end up being my future home city. The names were legendary and the talent was spectacular.

Team USA basketball went onto to win the gold medal, going 9-0, with an avg. margin of victory of 43.8 points (thank you Wikipedia), and never used a timeout. That is pure dominance.

For the next 8 years, Team USA continued to win, but every year the margin of victory was smaller and the effort required was greater. Finally, in 2002 Team USA finished 6th the World Championships in Indiana.

Two important things happened between 1992 and 2002 to bring about this dramatic turn of events:

  1. The rest of the world greatly improved. The teams that the USA faced in 2002 were composed of players who grew up playing basketball. Motivated and inspired by their childhood heroes who played on the Dream Team - Bird, Magic, Jordan, Barkley, etc... - the talent level has significantly improved. Team USA had just assumed that foreigners could never play as well as Americans

  2. Team USA lacked discipline and did not prepare for the future. We were lazy and sloppy. There were virtually no team practices and assembling a team was a joke. Basically, we just scrapped together what players we could get to play (with permission from the companies who paid their endorsement contracts as well). Meanwhile, all other countries maintained a permanent team roster, scheduled practices, exhibition matches and participation in other tournaments.

Team USA was in denial for the next 4 years. It could not put together a solid team, which understood how to play as a team, and floundered in the 2004 Olympics.

Finally, in 2006, the NBA realized that it had to get smart and serious in its cooperation with Team USA. They would have a permanent coach and players would have to commit to play for 3 years on the team. Invitations were given and tryouts conducted in Las Vegas. While they still failed at the 2006 Championships to get a gold medal, it was early in the process. All eyes are focused on the Beijing Olympics.

Who knows what will happen next month, but my money is on Team USA bringing home the gold. When the USA puts its mind to it, it can accomplish great things. But, we can never forget that it requires determination, a commitment to excellence, and
a willingness to not cut corners.

OK, but why is the title of this post "USA Basketball as a microcosm of the USA today"?

The USA is like Team USA Basketball around 2002. My country has been lazy, arrogant, and has not made the right investments while the rest of the world has been raising its level of competition and competence. The election this year is basically between those who still see the USA as the Dream Team (McCain) and those who recognize that while we used to be the Dream Team, we lost our step along the way (Obama). Much of the country is still in denial about the rise of China and India and a mature EU as true economic competitors across the board.

A lot of the focus on patriotism in this election, is really a reflection by one side that they are unable to admit that the USA needs to get its act together. They are sticking to their belief in American Exceptionalism even though everyday the USA without improvement is just a little less exceptional. This exceptionalism came from continued investment in people, infrastructure, and ideas. Unfortunately, the lack of smart investment in infrastructure and people made beginning in the 80s through to today reflects itself in a crumbling K-12 educational system, collapsing bridges and levees, and faltering mortgage market (A lot less people who are now foreclosed on, would have bought the house in the first place if they had had a reasonable economics education).

It is time for the USA to recognize that it needs to compete not on talent alone, nor intimidation, but simply by being better than everyone else. That will not happen until we rebuild our education system, provide healthcare, build infrastructure intelligently, and approach the world with the understanding that "you know, they've got game too".

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