Point Proven

by
Samori Benjamin

Kobe Bryant and Team USA put to rest the ridiculous notion that they do not play the best brand of basketball in the world.

A lot of folks had a lot to say about the games’ of NBA players during the 2004 Olympics when the United States Olympic basketball team won bronze and failed to win gold for the first time ever while using NBA players.  The United States lost three games that summer and the exuberance from the world over finally knocking off the world’s basketball power drove many across the globe boastfully sticking their chests out saying they had caught up, and it left many Americans ragging on the style of play of the NBA player, calling it selfish and un fundamental.  Nevertheless, if you tuned in at all to the basketball portion of the 2008 Beijing Olympics you could see that is far from the case. 

The NBA and its players are admired all over the world.  The NBA is still considered hands down the most competitive and best basketball league in the world.  The greatest players that other countries have to offer bring their games’ to the NBA for the bigger dollar and the greater level of competition.  The athletic and stylish freedom that the game of basketball allows has jolted a bolt of excitement through youngsters overseas.  The same way it has enthused black youth in the United States.  This eye catching show is illustrated the best in the NBA.  The fact that a lot of sports journalists and sports fans were bold with their proclamations that there were some higher level of basketball being played elsewhere in the world other than on the playgrounds of New York, Chicago, L.A., and everywhere else in the States' is the reason the likes of Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Paul, and the rest of the 2008 “Cream Team”  United States Olympic basketball squad signed up and made the commitment to be a part of the 2008 summer games. 

From the outset of their arrival in the Far East the United States basketball team was adored and mobbed by basketball fans who were lucky enough to be in the vicinity of these great NBA players.  Announcers and other journalists covering the Beijing games kept speaking about the “rock star” treatment the NBA players received in China, and some of the video footage looked like images from a 1980’s Michael Jackson concert, with fans eager to get a touch or a glimpse of the basketball lords.  Upon the team’s first game of the Olympics against host nation China and their star Yao Ming it was brought to the attention of the viewing public that NBA superstar Kobe Bryant is as popular or even more so than the face of the Chinese basketball team Yao Ming.  A stunning but interesting revelation.  NBC Sports did a report on the basketball scene in China in which they went to street ball courts and showed Chinese kids wearing the latest hip-hop gear and rocking the jerseys of Kobe Bryant and other NBA players not named Yao Ming. 

When interviewed the young people of China looked into the camera and spoke about how they love the NBA game because of its fast flowing style of play and the close identity the league has with hip-hop.  They explained how in Chinese society everyone is pretty much supposed to follow the traditional customs and ideals of the nation, individual freedom is not exactly encouraged and expression is something they all struggle with.  And as we know hip-hop is all about expression.  In the report you could see that the interest level that the young people of China have for the NBA is easily a representation of how kids in other parts of the world have been affected by the game as well.  Hip-hop and basketball in a lot of ways have become synonymous with each other.   And it’s that hip-hop flow along with the style of play on the basketball court that these kids feel they can express themselves through.   

The NBA is a league that has become dominated by young African-American athletes with 80 to 85 percent of it's players being African-American.  This group of athlete is responsible for taking the NBA to a new level, carrying the torch of the 1992 Dream Team which made a lot of foreigner’s fans of the NBA.  Since the 1990’s the NBA athlete has continued to get stronger, more athletic and versatile, and graceful on the basketball court.  The killa crossover dribble and other magnificent ball handling exploits along with the slam dunk have become as improvisational and exciting as any play in professional sports, and it’s that freestyle mentality that has attracted athletes to hip-hop, rappers to the NBA, and the world’s youth to the NBA and basketball.  Today’s NBA player not only has that cool hip-hop aura but their all around skill levels are more versatile then at any other point in the game’s history, and when the NBA season is in session there is no doubt in anyone’s mind where the highest level of basketball competition is being played. 

So when the 2008 United States basketball team stepped on the court in Beijing for the Olympics it was certainly a challenge to show and prove to the world that the game they all grew up playing on their local playgrounds was the best battle grounds in the world, and it was a chance to make a statement that they played the best brand of basketball on the planet.  And after the Team USA squad went 8-0 blowing out every opponent put in their path, until the gold medal game when they got a stiff challenge from Spain before pulling away late for a 118-107 victory, at the Olympics en route to winning gold no one again could dare say NBA players did not have the best and most complete basketball games’ in the world. 

The mere notion that the world has caught up to the American game is ridiculous.  Every year during the NBA season we see international players who are the top players on their international teams, struggle to get off the bench and make an impact for their NBA team.  Of course there are a few international players that have come to the NBA and made their presence felt, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs are two of the best that come to mind.  But we have too often seen players like Peja Stojakovic come into the league and light things up, but in the playoffs disappear faster than Houdini.  The 2007 NBA most valuable player Dirk Nowitzki is an undeniable talent but the last three years have seen him exit the playoffs with his team going down in flames with performances softer than the next.  Yao Ming who was a star at the Beijing Olympics has constantly been criticsized throughout his career for not playing meaner on the court, and we are still waiting for him to lead his team to a playoff series victory.   And how exactly did the Los Angeles Lakers fare this past June in the NBA Finals with a team comprised of a few international players who are key for them in their rotation, going up against a Boston Celtics team where the entire 12 man roster was African-American?  Which is the exact configuration of the 2008 TEAM USA Olympic gold medal winning basketball team.   While a vast number of international players have come to the NBA and shown an ability to shoot and pass well, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of their games’ they have proven to be soft, and definitely not on the same level as the best ball players from the United States. 

The United States basketball team had their rough times from 2002 through 2006 when they lost a combined seven games in international competition and failed to finish first in three consecutive tournaments, which was an embarrassment in itself and gave critics plenty of ammunition to denounce the American game as being the best.  The biggest explanation for the disappointing play can be placed on the lack of preparation that Team USA put forth before the tournaments began.  If the world has not caught up to the United States on the basketball court they certainly have gotten a lot better than the days of the1992 Olympics when players from other international teams came into the game with no thoughts of beating the Dream Team, and in fact their real agenda was to secure post game photo sessions with the United States players.  After a couple of more perfect runs through the Olympics in 1996 and 2000 the luster of playing in the Olympics was gone for the NBA superstar.  In this country no one cares or takes seriously a gold medal victory by the United States basketball team.  Up to this point winning gold has been a foregone conclusion even with Team USA finishing a disappointing third at the 2004 Olympics.  Even after this summer, with this collection of NBA talent going to Beijing and bringing back the gold for the first time since 2000 it’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme of what history will say about their careers long after they retire.  The fact that a group of NBA superstars led by Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, and Dwayne Wade won an Olympic gold medal is something that was expected and hardly seen as a great feat the way winning an NBA championship is.  It was just good for American basketball fans to see their team dominate the competition and shut up all the critics.  But NBA players are measured by what they do against each other.  Not what they do when they pile all their talent together to take on international competition who are inferior.    American basketball fans and media know the most impressive thing that will ever go on the resumes of NBA players, from a team perspective, will be an NBA championship and not an Olympic gold medal.  What’s more impressive, Dwayne Wade carrying an aging Miami Heat team to a NBA championship two years ago after being down 2 games to none in the NBA Finals against a more talented Dallas Mavericks team, or Dwayne Wade winning an Olympic gold medal with an all-star contingent by his side?   It’s not even an issue.

So with all this in play, and the meaning of winning a gold medal no longer a sacred thing after NBA players easily brought home gold in 92’,96’ and 2000 the emphasis on playing Olympic basketball was no longer a big deal for anyone involved in USA basketball.  It was a tortoise and the hare type of scenario where Team USA basketball from top to bottom slept on the competition and failed to put together a collection of players who had practice time and chemistry on the basketball court.  After all, the best international teams are made up of players who have been playing together on their national teams for years.  A stark contrast from their American counterparts.  Before the 2004 Olympics the collection of players on that Team USA team had only practiced together for the first time about 20 days before their first Olympic game.  The lack of preparation showed and United States basketball rudely got their comeupins.   But this time around in 2008 Team USA led by Director Jerry Calangelo required all players to begin practicing together as of 2006, it gave the team three summers to build chemistry and prepare themselves, and whola they gave a dominating performance over the world in 2008, destroying the competitve spirt of the competition in the process. 

After all the good feeling and bonding that went on between the NBA superstars in Beijing wears off every player on that team will know that their real challenge will be having a good NBA season and chasing that Larry O’Brien trophy come June.  For international players winning an Olympic gold medal with the United States involved would be the biggest thing in their athletic careers.  Because there is no question that 1 through 12 Team USA has the best collection of basketball talent bar none and on paper they are always the favorites.  The NBA game and its players are still the standard that everyone in the world measures themselves against and beating them is always a huge upset and something to go crazy about.  The national pride and hunger that the Argentina’s and Spain’s, and Turkey’s carry with them into international play is a real sense of going out trying to beat the big bad overwhelming favorite United States team.  All of us journalists know what the magnitude of a team knocking off the United States in these past Olympics would have been.   It would have been tremendous.  While the United States team basked in glory upon winning Olympic gold, happy they represented, the feat will be one of the easier challenges in their basketball lives. Watching Team USA play together for two weeks in the Olympics was a great show no doubt about it.  But the real challenge for the players of Team USA will begin in a little less than two months from now when the NBA season tips off.

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