The Team USA basketball legend is shattered
HIGH GROUND By William M. Esposo 2006-09-07
I just earned myself last Friday a genuine Japanese Kobe beef teppanyaki dinner at Tsukiji on Arnaiz Avenue in Makati City. My good friend, fishing magnate Bobby del Rosario, and I had made a friendly wager on whether Team USA would win or lose the FIBA World Championship that ended last Sunday in Saitama, Japan. I was for the side of the wager that Team USA would not emerge the champion.

The Greek team won the bet for me with a score of 101-95 over the Americans during the semi-finals. Greece however was denied the ultimate glory by Spain in the finals last Sunday. Spain routed highly favored Greece, 70-47, with Spain's main man Pau Gasol out of the final game on a foot injury that will require surgery.

In the 1960s, I would not have made a bet against Team USA without asking for at least a plus-15-points handicap factor. It would have been insane to bet against the US basketball team sans plus 15 points or more for USSR (Russia) or Yugoslavia, then the closest rivals of the US in international basketball competitions.

The few times that Team Philippines matched up against Team USA in international competitions, nobody in his right mind would bet for the Philippines unless it carried a plus-20-points handicap factor!

And to think that in the 1960s all the teams that the US sent to the Olympics were all composed of amateurs and did not have a single NBA player in the lineup. At that time, the US did not need the NBA pros to win the international basketball competitions. Their amateurs were more than enough.

In the three Olympics during the 1960s (Rome 1960, Tokyo 1964 and Mexico 1968), there were only two instances when the US did not win a game with a double-digit margin. These were in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics where the US beat Yugoslavia, 69-61, while the other was in the Mexico Olympics where the US beat Puerto Rico, 61-56. All the rest of the US victories in the 1960, 1964 and 1968 Olympics were accomplished with double-digit margins.

Of course, the US teams in the 1960s had in their rosters amateurs who were destined to become NBA greats. The 1960 US Olympic team had Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas in their lineup. The 1964 US Olympic team had Bill Bradley, Larry Brown and Jeff Mullins. The 1968 US Olympic team, which was a second team, had Spencer Haywood, Jojo White and Charlie Scott.

The 1968 US Olympic team was to have sent the team that was to be led by Kareem Abdul Jabaar, who was then still known by his Christian name of Lew Alcindor. But this was during the era of movements and protests and the US first team was decimated by the boycott of African Americans, who were then called Blacks.

Thus, the second team headed by Haywood, White and Scott was sent instead to compete in Mexico. And yet that second team beat all its opponents with ease. It must be noted that Spencer Haywood was the most dominant center of the 1968 Mexico Olympics and yet Haywood measured a mere 6 feet 9 inches, compared with the Russian and Yugoslav centers who stood at over 6 feet 11 inches.

Then the controversial 1972 Munich Olympic Games were held. Attacked by terrorists, it had all the aura of turmoil and upheaval surrounding it. For the first time in Olympic history, the US basketball team lost in the final game and this was to Russia by a solitary albeit highly controversial point, 51-50.

Doug Collins of the US cage team sank two free throws with three seconds left to put the US ahead, 50-49. What followed was the most bizarre series of events in Olympic basketball finals. Owing to confusion at the official's table, the Russians ended up having three replays of the last three seconds to make a basket. To US fans, it looked like a European conspiracy in FIBA to dethrone the US basketball team.

The third and most controversial of these replays of the last three seconds of the game was when William Jones, secretary general of FIBA, intervened, ordered the clock to be reset for the third time to 00:03 and the game replayed from that point. Subsequently, Russia's Aleksander Belov caught the long pass and scored the winning points as the buzzer sounded.

The US team immediately filed a protest after the game, which was heard by a five-man Jury. The FIBA jury voted 3-2 along ideological lines between Communist and non-Communist countries and rejected the protest. That was how Russia won its first Olympic basketball gold medal. This marked the first ever loss for Team USA in Olympic basketball, ending a winning run of 63 games and seven gold medals.

From that point on, we saw the rest of the basketball-playing world improve and catch up with the US. The US was forced to start fielding NBA pros (after the FIBA relaxed its rules on pros playing in FIBA tournaments) to remain competitive in international basketball tournaments. The first NBA team to play in the Barcelona Olympics was so
awesome -- what with Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird leading it -- that it was dubbed the "Dream Team."

Just like the amateurs who represented Team USA in the 1950s and 1960s, the 1992 "Dream Team" bulldozed their opponents like a tank over a platoon of ants on the highway. And just like their amateur predecessors, the NBA-staffed "Dream Teams" eventually met their matches and these past Olympics and World Basketball Championships saw the NBA-powered teams lose to European and South American cage teams.

In the 2002 World Men's Basketball Championship, the US team could place only sixth -- losing to Yugoslavia, Argentina and Spain. The US does not usually prepare as hard for the FIBA World Basketball Championships as they would for the Olympics and it was not surprising that the US would not even figure in the FIBA World Basketball Championship finals. But fora team that included Reggie Miller, Jermaine O' Neal, Ben Wallace, Elton Brand, Shawn Marion, Michael Finley and Paul Pierce, a three-game loss and a sixth place finish was a shocker.

During the 2004 Athens Olympics, the US failed to figure in the finals, which saw Argentina win its first Olympic Gold. Prior to the semi-finals, the US even lost to Lithuania and Puerto Rico (by 19 points) in Group B and could only place third overall behind Argentina and Italy.

In this recent edition of the 2006 FIBA World Basketball Championship, it cannot be said that the US did have the desire to win. It did. The desire was there to redeem lost pride as a result of the debacle in the 2004 Athens Olympics and the sixth place finish in the 2002 FIBA World Basketball Championship. It cannot be otherwise when the US sends a team
that parades the current cream of the NBA crop: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Elton Brand.

After the US team had dismissed all their opponents in Group D, my friend Bobby del Rosario had good reasons to take on my offer of a wager that the US will not win the title. The US looked unbeatable, but that's until it was matched up with Greece in last Friday's semifinals. The US could only salvage a third place finish after beating Argentina last Saturday.

It's now quite obvious that the US cannot hope to win in international tournaments with teams that are assembled only six to eight weeks before the start of competitions. The US team that lost to Greece had the better players, no doubt about it. But basketball is a team game and the team that plays better as five men on the court will always beat the team that relies mainly on individual virtuosity.

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