Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Forgettable Summer for USA Basketball?

While out at a nightclub in Belgrade, Serbia a couple of weeks ago I couldn't help but notice half of the Serbian Men’s national basketball team partying together in the VIP section. There was no misconduct, no excessive drinking (most of the guys were sipping Red Bull) -- just a group of guys that included NBA players Darko Milicic and Marko Jaric dancing and having a good time together in the Serbian capital. The Serbians did have something to celebrate too: their U16, U18, U19 and U20 teams swept the European and World Championships this summer in their respective divisions.

So what about USA Basketball?

It almost didn’t make sense when I read this headline from a USA Basketball press release a few weeks ago: “USA Men Surprise Argentina 74-71 at Pan American Games”. I know things have gone sideways for USA Basketball in recent FIBA tournaments. I know that Argentina is the defending Olympic champ. But since when is the US national basketball team an underdog, especially against an Argentina team that didn't have a single full-time member of their real national squad? Considering that the USA entry in this summer’s Pan American Games finished in fifth place, that day has arrived.

How bad has this summer been for USA Basketball? Probably the worst in its history. The US didn’t win a medal at the Pan Am Games for the first time ever. (2003 was the first time ever they didn’t win the gold.) In July, at the U19 World Championships in Novi Sad, Serbia the US lost in the final to Serbia. It’s hard to complain about losing a close game in the final but the bottom line is that the US hasn’t won a gold medal on the world stage (excluding qualifying tournaments) at any age group since the FIBA U21 2001 World Championships. That's six years. The Senior Men’s Team hasn’t won gold since the 2000 Olympics.

Has USA Basketball hit rock bottom? Does anyone even care? Media in other basketball-loving countries like Serbia treat disappointing results as national catastrophe. The federation, coaches and players are all dragged over the coals for their failures. In the US, when our national team loses, we come up with increasingly lame excuses. In 2002, it was that we didn’t have Shaq. In 2004 and 2006, the team was an all-star lineup void of outside shooters and role players. This summer, following the US’ failure in the Pan Am games, Andy Katz argued that the reason Jay Wright’s US team lost is that Wright didn’t play Wash St. guard Derick Low enough. I like Derrick Low as a player, but we’re holding him up as the reason for a fifth place finish? What about the fact that USA Basketball gave them only two weeks of preparation and not a single scrimmage before the games began. Seems like the college recruiting meat market and summer sneaker camps have precedent over Team USA. How messed up is that?

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