The NBA's America

“Most athletes, they hunger for the Olympics every four years. They spend their lives wanting to get there and that’s what they want to do. But we’re different. We’ve just finished an 82-game season and we want to chill out.”

~ Seattle SuperSonics guard Ray Allen on why NBA players should be paid to play in the Olympics

In my childhood, I spent many an evening watching professional basketball games with my father. Having been born and raised in Massachusetts, he was a die-hard Boston Celtics fan. Together, we watched the glorious rebirth of the Celtics in the 1980s with such luminaries as Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. He would always reminisce about the legendary Boston teams of the 1950s and the heroics of men like Bill Russell and John Havlicek.

But by the mid 1990s, he had stopped watching basketball altogether, and a couple of years later, I followed suit.

I was reminded of the wisdom of that choice the other evening while at a friend’s house. He happened to be watching the NBA playoffs, so I joined him for a while.

By any reasonable standard, the NBA today is a squalid and obscene mutation of what it once was. Having enjoyed the game in its better days only makes its current status all the more painful.

The violence, the obscenity, and the pompous arrogance that accompany modern basketball have destroyed the sport for any respectable fan. I’ve lost count of the number of news stories I’ve seen concerning professional players and their assaults, weapons charges, and drug convictions. And it hasn’t always been like this…there has been an undeniable disintegration of standards across the league. (Can anyone imagine Celtics great K.C. Jones trying to strangle Red Auerbach at practice, la Latrell Sprewell?)

To make matters worse, many of them seem to be more concerned with their music and film careers than with cultivating fan loyalty to their team and the sport

Without doubt, the rot that is the NBA finally came out into the open in last year’s Olympic Games in Athens. There, the world got to see a team full of players with 8-figure salaries loaf, bumble, and curse their way to mediocrity. They finally stumbled their way to a bronze medal after being defeated by several nations the size of postage stamps.

The reasons behind that pathetic performance were threefold and obvious:

First, their opponents were playing the game as a team sport.

In every game that the "dream team" played, they functioned on the court as disjointed individuals. They spent most of their playing time showboating and ball-hogging. Their offensive schemes constantly broke down as egos clashed over their roles.

Unfortunately, they were playing against teams that were drilled with the concept of team play. Other countries don’t pamper their basketball stars from adolescence. Consequently, their players were more willing to pass the ball and sacrifice the spotlight for the greater goal of winning the game.

Second, their opponents concentrated on the fundamentals

This point is closely linked to the lack of team play noted above. The modern NBA version of the game encourages players to concentrate on superfluous and egocentric stunts as opposed to the basics. They are more concerned with how their 360 slam looks on the highlight reel than whether anyone hustles back to play defense after the score.

Tragically, as the fan-base of the league has degenerated into a facsimile of the Roman Coliseum’s mob (such as the specimen who started that infamous chair-throwing brawl at the Pacers-Pistons game a few months ago), the league obviously feels that it has to promote this sort of play in order to keep the rabble buying tickets.

Third, international referees call basketball games like they were originally meant to be played.

Assault and battery has become the standard method of defending against a lay-up in the modern NBA. Though one would never know it from watching contemporary games, basketball was originally created as a sport with almost no physical contact. But the NBA has, again, let the rules slide over the years because modern fans like to see players get knocked around.

Unfortunately for the US team, this ethos has not yet worked its way into the international game. There, the officials are much more likely to call a foul for such minor offenses as punching, kicking, and eye gouging.

As a result, several of the American team’s star players kept fouling out in the early part of the games. It is tough to win when your starting line-up is warming the bench halfway into the first period.

In many ways, this performance was rather like an evil twin of the US Hockey teams’ stunning upset victory in the 1980 Olympics.

Back during that heroic series (which I still regard, to this day, as the most emotionally uplifting sporting event I’ve ever seen), a team of relative nobodies defeated the mighty Soviets and went on to win the gold medal. In the process, they displayed major virtues such as determination, teamwork, and courage.

America of 1980 was a very different place, and that team reflected it in many ways. Back then, the USA had come off several disasters (such as Vietnam, the energy crisis, and the Iranian hostage crisis), and was suffering from a serious case of self-doubt. Americans felt as though their nation could do nothing right.

Into that void stepped that hockey team. Their wonderful run for the gold uplifted America and made us all feel better about ourselves.

Likewise, the US basketball team at the Athens Olympics is also a reflection of contemporary America. But today, America is a very different society than it was in 1980. Our finances and foreign policy reflect the belief that we are somehow "special" and that the rules of history and economics no longer apply to us. America believes that it can do anything it wants and somehow avoid the negative consequences.

The NBA’s play is marked by gratuitous violence and a vainglorious style that reflects a monstrous and pampered egocentrism.

It is, in short, the identical twin of America’s economic and foreign policies.

Greek mythology tells us that the Gods are always offended by hubris. Those who indulge in it cry out to be knocked down a few pegs as punishment. The dream team’s hubris earned it public humiliation and a disappointing bronze medal.

Unfortunately, the bill for our nation’s hubris has yet to come due.

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