There's an odd dynamic about Team USA Basketball, and frankly there has been for the last 20 years. The original Dream Team was considered something like a marvel, one of the world's great wonders. I was young when the Americans took Barcelona, but everything written since points to a sort of awe and appreciation of the dominant squad. Perhaps it was the newness and, well, awe of it all. That sentiment's gone.
Gregg Doyel is never representative of the majority opinion, and one should never construe something that Doyel writes as a widely held belief simply because Doyel writes it. But I do think that a recent opinion Doyel dropped touches a taproot of current American sentiment about international basketball. The other day, Doyel tweeted:
I'd rather lose with college kids than win with LeBron, Kobe, etc. Not sure that's logical, but it's how I feel.
This might be contrarian, illogical and heck, maybe even disturbingly provincial. But I don't think it's a rare sentiment. Perhaps the majority of basketball fans who root for the United States don't feel this way, but based on the tweets and comments I see as a basketball writer, I'm convinced there's a distinct subset of American fans agree with Doyel.
Americans have never been embarrassed by excellence. Striving for hegemonic power is, frankly, one of the most American traits. Our history -- political, geographic, cultural -- is one of the belief that America is exceptional in every way. This manifests in sports pretty cleanly: we expect to be the best in the world at everything we do. I remain convinced that if the United States were a true soccer power, that sport would be a bigger spectator draw in this country. In international competitions like the Olympics, despite stories of redemption, recovery and improbable triumph littering the coverage, we like to focus on gold and the chase of it. Only when the foil is unbearably great -- think Usain Bolt -- do we accept failure. In most cases, failing to medal is outright failure. Consider the ongoing backlash against Lolo Jones, who had the temerity to be very popular despite clearly not being the best American hurdler. Consider the disappointment in men's gymnastics and boxing. In almost every sport, the voice for dominance is undisputed. We value success a great deal.
Yet some of us would rather see college kids in a war against Spain, Argentina and Russia instead of comfortable victories by the very best American players we can offer? We aren't a nation embarrassed by excellence, yet some of us would choose to self-inflict a handicap going into what is considered the most important international basketball tournament by just about all Americans, players and fans alike. (Don't believe that? Consider Kobe Bryant was okay missing the 2010 World Championships despite not having that medal in his drawer. Kobe Bean Bryant, the prince of titles, won't win a World Championship, and that's OK with them. Now tell me the World Championship matters more than the Olympics.)
Is it boredom? Are we bored with American dominance? If so, let me flip the calendar back only six years, when Team USA last lost in international competition at the World Championship. Or eight years back to the devastating performance in Athens. That's where this all comes together for me. There was no small amount of sadist glee when Team USA failed in Athens. Most of it was directed at Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson, sure, there was some remarkable schadenfreude, and not just from Europeans. A chunk of Americans seemed glad that the United States got punked. I was tending bar in those days, and it wasn't rare to talk to someone about the disaster and have that person come across as glad. Maybe the 2004 team represented a particular strain of anti-fundamental basketball -- I mentioned Starbury and The Answer, right? -- and we all know that anti-fundamental twists folks into knots. "Whatever happened to a solid chest pass and a clean jump shot? Go to hell with all of this razzle dazzle."
But this American team isn't anything like that team. Are there enough similar elements that the anti-razzle dazzle sector of basketball fans can find fault? We know how easy it is for a large swath of people to hate LeBron. Carmelo Anthony is not widely popular. Russell Westbrook has detractors. The team's current play is quite cocky, via all of those damn three-pointers. Is this team unlikable enough that there would be glee if they lost? I don't mean glee from the truly irredeemable like Skip Bayless -- I mean widespread glee, widespread schadenfreude? Would some fans be happy if Team USA lost?
I think there's something here, and I think it's conjoined to the Doyel sentiment about preferring a struggle with untainted players versus domination with players we already have opinions about. Frankly, I'm convinced most of these fans (Doyel included) simply don't want to root for a team that boasts LeBron as its best player. There's always been a discomfort with LeBron as the world's greatest player, even before The Decision. (His elbow injury remains the only actual basketball injury people laughed about, excepting Eddy Curry's exercise ball catastrophe.) We love to see Americans win, and in dominating fashion. But some of us have additional terms: we want the American team to feature players we don't dislike, playing a style we appreciate, acting in ways we think they ought to act. If the team can't meet our standards, our quest for the reaffirmation of American dominance is tempered by our thirst for being proven right. That's where the Doyelian thirst for struggle comes from, I think. These fans want to see victory on their own terms.
Too bad. Go Team USA, go.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.