Every once in a while USA hoops needs ‘good humbling’

The voice was barely audible from 4,900 miles away, but the message was delivered in high-definition clarity.

“Maybe this is what we need, every once in a while,” the voice said. “Maybe we need a good humbling.”

The voice did not wish to be identified for the record in that moment, August 2004, because it belonged to David Stern, and what he was watching was a daily meltdown of the U.S. Basketball team at the Athens Olympics. There was a stunning 19-point loss to Puerto Rico in the first game of group play. That had felt like Buster Douglas putting Mike Tyson on a mat.

There was another loss, 94-90, to Lithuania a few games later. That one was less stunning. Four years earlier, at the Sydney Olympics, the third iteration of the Dream Team had barely escaped the semifinals with a two-point win over Lithuania when a 3-pointer at the buzzer by Sarunas Jasikevicius came up short. When Lithuania completed the deal in 2004, it felt like a trans-Atlantic call to the NBA commissioner was in order.

“That was something, wasn’t it?” Stern said. “And yet not surprising at all.”

He wanted to be candid, and that meant staying far off the record, because it wouldn’t be the best look for the czar of American basketball to concede his lack of surprise at what was transpiring in Greece. But he was also hopeful.

“Sometimes, we need to have out world rattled a bit,” he said. “Russia did that in ’72 — although not fairly — and then again in ’88. We responded to that. Now we must respond again.”

Kevin Durant shoots over Argentina's Patricio Garino during Team USA's first win in their pre-Olympic games.
Kevin Durant shoots over Argentina’s Patricio Garino during Team USA’s 108-80 victory, their first win in their pre-Olympic schedule.

It is not hard to link the feelings surrounding the present assemblage of Olympic basketball talent with the group that wound up losing three times in Athens 17 years ago. It was immediately clear that team’s young core — LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade were all making their Olympic debuts — were a terrible mismatch with their old-school coach, Larry Brown.

The daily dysfunction ultimately sent them home with a bronze medal. It was as dissatisfying an Olympic performance as there’d ever been. In 1972, the gold had been stolen from the U.S. with end-game shenanigans in Munich. In 1988, John Thompson had forgotten to bring shooters to Seoul, at a time when the rest of the world was learning to fill it up on the fly.

That 1988 disappointment led directly to the 1992 Dream Team.

The 2004 disaster led directly to the Redeem Team, the core that dominated 2008 in Beijing, 2012 in London and 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, coached by Mike Krzyzewski, led by the vets of ’04 who had vowed to never let the world forget what American basketball was supposed to be about.

What will the 2021 team be remembered for?

Their consecutive losses to Nigeria and Australia in Las Vegas this week have raised concerns about what might be coming in Tokyo in a couple of weeks. The team looks out of shape and out of sorts. The coach, Gregg Popovich, has resorted to his default position of bullying inquisitors rather than answering them.

(There was a viral exchange of Popovich taking exception with a reporter who pointed out how often the U.S. has rolled over teams, post-Dream team. Popovich wanted to hear none of it, so he was unable to be reminded that at the ’12 Olympics, the U.S. beat Nigeria 156-73. Note to Popovich: 83-point wins count as “blowouts.”)

One thing we are always slow to concede: Whenever the world catches up to the U.S. in basketball, it is a good thing for the sport. As shady as ’72 was, the fact that a team could play the U.S. so close after the Americans had gone 63-0 from 1936-72 showed the planet had officially started to catch up. The 1988 team showed it had certainly surpassed American amateurs.

And 2004 made it official: Even America’s best had to do more than just show up.

It’s what made the Redeem Teams so much fun to watch, even as they clobbered opponents. And in truth it will make the journey of this team fascinating to track, too. The Americans looked a lot better Tuesday night in flattening Argentina, 108-80.

In truth, no team with Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum, among many others, is going to sneak up on anyone. There will surely be a growing murmur of who isn’t on the team as the Games draw closer (and if the team stumbles in Japan). And, again: The world has once again narrowed the gap. It isn’t hard to see, even if it may be hard to accept.

And maybe, just maybe, as important as American dominance has been to raising the game’s global level, it is time, again, for the favor to be returned. As a wise voice once said: Once in a while, we could use a good humbling.

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