We are a sports nation obsessed with winning, you know, an everyone gets a trophy community. And when it comes to basketball on an international stage, that sentiment goes triple-double. Afterall, James Naismith didn’t have seventh-place finishes in mind when he nailed his peach basket to the barn in Springfield, Mass.
Maybe the performance turned in by Team USA at the World Championships this month didn’t bother you. It’s not the Olympics, we know. But it got under enough important skin to make us realize that its likely we will never again be in the same position – understaffed and unprepared for competition.
Truth is, the superstar NBA player probably can’t be bothered anymore with stuff in the summertime. It’s the time of the year to go to Italy and Ibiza, luxuriate with others rich and famous in an environment far away from the world of sweat and Gatorade.
Just the other day Kobe Bryant was saying he thought basketball fans would be best served recalibrating their expectations when it comes to events like this. Patriotism still burns, but its likely the flame will run hotter in the future only during the Olympic cycle.
“It’s not a matter of the rest of the world catching up to the U.S., it’s that the rest of the world has been caught up for quite some time,” Bryant said in China. “And it’s to the point now where us in the U.S. are going to win some, we’re going lose some. And that’s just how it goes.”
Here is how this went: The United States, without its usual core of first-team NBA stars, turned in a pedestrian performance at the World Cup. Our nation had a 58-game international winning streak ended with a loss to France. And remember, France had guys like Frank Ntilikina on it.
As a result, Team USA was knocked out before the semifinals – and almost unthinkable turn of events, at least when Kobe was playing for these titles. Is anyone even interested in Saturday’s seventh-place game against Poland?
If Bryant views veer off the highway, it’s that he doesn’t believe the reason Team USA tailed off was because the best players didn’t play.
“I hear that a lot: ‘Did we send the best possible team that we can put out there?'” Bryant said. “It’s not going to be a cakewalk. The days of the ’92 Barcelona Dream Team are gone. They’re over, so it’s going to be tough.”
Bryant doesn’t know anything but international success. The three USA teams he played for – the 2007 FIBA Americas title and 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams – never lost a game. They didn’t lose because they were the best playing like it.
But apparently, priorities are changing and the top-tier is thinking more than twice about whether the drain of workouts, games and international travel, as opposed to rest and regeneration for the season, is worth their time.
With that understanding, Bryant said American stars who decided to skip playing this summer had their reasons and he supported them.
“Some of those guys haven’t had the opportunity to play for the United States, so I’m sure if their health allowed them to, they certainly would’ve been over here playing,” Bryant told ESPN.
“But a lot of those guys are coming off of serious injuries and trying to figure out how to navigate through that to get healthy again and back to 100%. Other guys are moving, moving to different cities and getting their families to settle in. It’s a big adjustment for families, so I certainly understand it.”
There is less understanding from the administrative side. Responsible for crafting the team, guys like Jerry Colangelo, USA Basketball’s managing director, are going to take it very personally that not everyone who could have played decided to.
Colangelo heard “no” more times than “yes” when putting together the World Cup team. There were 35 players in the original player pool for the tournament, yet only four of them decided to participate. In Colangelo’s world, there is a direct correlation between that and having a run of seven straight international championships with some kind of medal come to end.
“I can only say, you can’t help but notice and remember who you thought you were going to war with and who didn’t show up,” Colangelo told ESPN. “I’m a firm believer that you deal with the cards you’re dealt. All we could have done, and we did it, is get the commitments from a lot of players. So with that kind of a hand, you feel reasonably confident that you’re going to be able to put a very good representative team on the court.
“No one would have anticipated the pullouts that we had.”
Keep in mind that it’s been 17 years since a USA team even finished sixth in an international tournament. Even if they beat Poland on Saturday, the worst finish ever is as locked in like a Stephen Curry three.
“It’s a great, great group of guys who are competing,” U.S. assistant coach Steve Kerr said. “They’ve been so committed to each other and the process. You take a lot of pride in that and you’re disappointed for them, but this is life.”
To be fair to those who did not play, the international schedule makers did not make it easy on them. For the first time since the late 1960s, the World Cup and Olympics will be played in consecutive years. So playing would have required consecutive summers of toil and perhaps trouble.
“We’re going to let the dust settle, let things depress a little bit,” said Colangelo. “Obviously I’m always thinking ahead, which means what’s going to take place, and it’s going to happen fast and soon because we just have to get our act together for the Olympics.”
Look at the USA roster: Only two of the 12 were NBA All-Stars last season. And even before and during the tournament, ankle injuries suffered by Jayson Tatum and Kyle Kuzma thinned out the ranks even more.
“The players did everything they can do,” said Colangelo. “They are a good group of guys. But we went in with higher expectations in terms of roster and it didn’t kind of happen the way we were hopeful and anticipating and expecting. That, to me, was a big disappointment.”
As he prepares to put together the team that will play in the 2020 Summer Games in Toyko, Colangelo already knows the collaborative effort it will require.
“Going forward for USA Basketball, we’re going to need the cooperation of teams, agents, and then there has to be communication with players one-on-one to solidify those commitments,” he said. I am going to be anxious to see how many players reach out early to indicate that they wish and want and desire to play.”