We’re Playing Ourselves: Team USA and American Exceptionalism

As LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul & Co. rocked their gold medals – punctuating a four-year restoration of American hoops dominance – the country yawned. 

Throughout the Olympics, we, the American public, basically said, "Give up your summer and go trounce the competition. Just know that we won't really care. Actually, we’re going to yawn and complain about how boring you make the games, because you're so much better than the other countries. You can't lose, though. In fact, if you even allow a squad to play you close, we won't pat you on the back for pulling out a close win, we'll be all like, 'What gives?' And, if you have the audacity to lose, we will revoke your passports. So, just to be clear, this is your gig: give up your vacation, win and win really big and don't expect any kudos for it. Oh…and we'd like to reiterate, once again, that you all bore us."

We’re so bored with sending our NBA stars to the Olympics – and their 20-point wins – that certain factions of the media and public have become enamored with the David Stern (and owner-backed) idea of setting the American age-ceiling at 23 for Olympic play. We’ve started romanticizing rooting for a young squad eking out dramatic, nail-biter wins. We need to get real. And if Stern and the NBA owners think they can keep the big stars out of the Olympics – neglecting gold – without palpable backlash, they’re tripping, too.

The age-ceiling, at first blush, seems arbitrary. It would mean a guy like Derrick Rose or Blake Griffin might never play in the Olympics. KD would have been ineligible this summer. According to many reports and most intelligence, however, the age-ceiling is really just a ruse. The endgame here is for the NBA to partner with FIBA and turn the World Championships (which always take place two years after the Olympics) into the “World Cup of Basketball.” The plan, it seems, is for NBA/USA Basketball to funnel its superstars to this new World Cup of Basketball, rake in the revenue and leave the Olympics to young college kids and pro upstarts.

This is an idea that Kobe Bryant called stupid. Mark Cuban thinks the exact opposite. He told ESPNDalls.com, "If you look up stupid in the dictionary you see a picture of the USA Dream Team playing for free for corporate America so the U.S. Olympic Committee can make billions of dollars.”

Money trumps everything, but the NBA shouldn’t fool itself into thinking that it can quickly recondition the American public to totally devalue winning gold medals in the Olympics. Anything less than gold and the public yawning will turn to public rancor. For a league with such a tenuous relationship with its fans – fans from a country that obsessed with being the best…at everything – this is problematic.

Basketball – like jazz, hip hop, Apple products, HBO dramas and Buffalo wings – is one of America’s truly great gifts to the world.  We were generous in that regard. The Dream Team’s marching orders in 1992 was to spread the NBA/American basketball gospel. But, when it comes to owning that No. 1 spot, just as we are with our economic, cultural and military standing in the world, Americans can be some proprietary mofos. Haughty, too.

Not too long ago, Frank Rich wrote about declinist panic in America, something that is spurred by the collective, intrinsic notion of American exceptionalism.  This idea of exceptionalism posits that we are supposed to be the best, because we are the best and any back-step or drop that moves us anywhere near the vicinity of “the pack” is a cause for alarm.

American exceptionalism is what motivates our fixation with medal counts. The former Soviet Union and China – America’s two chief international rivals over the past 60 years or so – have their own ideas about their respective country’s exceptionalism.  The Olympics historically acted as staging grounds to showcase this to the world.

After the apocalypse of watching China win the gold medal count war in Beijing, America is now reveling in its regained preeminence established in London. Forty-six gold medals – eight more than China and 22 more than Russia. Normalcy is back.

Stern and the NBA, however, shouldn’t perceive America’s growing disinterest with USA Basketball as a license to get cute with the roster. Many Americans don’t spend too much time caring about the particulars of military spending – they just like to know the U.S. military is the world’s most powerful. Many Americans don’t spend too much time boning up on the ins-n-outs of foreign trade – we just like knowing we run things. The same goes for something contextually trivial like basketball.

“We won the gold? So, it’s clear we’re inarguably the best? OK, cool.”

Sending a team of barely-legals to play grown@$$ men on FIBA turf is a dicey move.

Here’s a list of players we’d have been choosing from, had we been operating under the age-ceiling: Griffin, Rose, Kevin Love, Eric Gordon, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Ty Lawson, Kyrie Irving, Greg Monroe, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Evan Turner, Paul George, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jrue Holiday.

Given injuries to Rose and Griffin, I’d have probably sent the following team to London: Love, Cousins, Davis and Monroe as the bigs; Westbrook, Gordon, Harden, Irving and Lawson as the guards; Turner, George and MKG as the swingmen.

That’s a team with just two of the league’s top 15 players (Love and Westbrook) and it’s a squad short on versatility, shooting and maturity/IQ – the exact things that won the 2012 squad the gold medal.

The second these kids (all millionaires, who automatically make the “99 percent” get a little leery) come back without a gold, public would start dropping their quarters in the hate machine en masse.

The NFL is bulletproof (what player is going to get arrested next?). MLB has its quaint history and attached Americana. Penn State has taught us the outsized importance of college football in this country. College basketball has the cultural phenomenon of March Madness. The NBA is a different animal.

Every problem/dustup/issue that arises – big or small – becomes a referendum on the league and its players. With declinist panic eliciting everything from disillusionment to downright xenophobia, don’t let an increasingly ornery public, inclined to nitpick the NBA to death, hear about a group of pros losing bragging rights in our sport. The NBA-backlash would be ugly or, at the very least, an unnecessary image issue for the league.

So, for now, the public can yawn all it wants; but Stern and his cronies need to wake up. Go get your paper with FIBA and the World Cup of Basketball. As long as the Olympics act as the stage for the world’s most audacious/ambitious countries to trumpet their perceived exceptionalism, though, there won’t be anything precious about silver or gold when it comes to what Americans expect out of USA Basketball. Team USA needs to hunt for gold and they better bring the big guns.

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