- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 29, 2004

ATHENS — What happens to a dream deferred?

Can’t give you an answer. No habla Espanol.

Outshot, outpassed, outplayed. Out of the gold medal game. Ouch. USA Basketball is officially cooked, bronzed for the first time since we benched the college kids.

Third place? That’s just the second loser. Roll over, Dr. Naismith, and tell Hank Iba the news: We have become a softball nation. The rest of the world isn’t just catching up; it has surpassed us. And knowing we still lead the planet in big-budget summer blockbusters isn’t much consolation.

That said, unleashing a dubbed version of “Catwoman” on the unsuspecting Argentinean public seems particularly vengeful. Couldn’t we just dispatch Ben Affleck instead?

Anyway, back to hoops. Now come the recriminations, the pointed fingers, the lame excuses. Our best player was tied up in Colorado court. We didn’t have enough (read: any) shooters. International referees are less consistent than John Kerry’s recollections of Christmas Eve in Cambodia. Kurtz! The horror!

All of this may be true. But it doesn’t address the fundamental problem: We’ve been lapped — badly. And the only way to turn things around is to change the terms of the debate. Which ought to be a familiar proposition to everyone in Washington or even anyone who has watched “Meet the Press” lately:

So, Mr. Vice President, you’re saying that there’s no slam dunk evidence of a link between Saddam and al Queda and that no WMDs have been found?

Tim, you poor, misguided fool. I’m saying that there’s one less terrorist regime in the world. Didn’t you watch the Iraqi soccer team?

If you can’t beat ‘em, don’t bother joining ‘em. Instead, make ‘em join you. Question is, how can this work for USA Basketball?

Ideally, we would place ourselves on more familiar footing, junking Olympic hoops in favor of tackle football or some other sport that interests only America and parts of Canada. But in all likelihood, there won’t be a NASCAR track in Beijing. So we’ll have to settle for the next best thing.

Next time around, send the AND 1 streetball team.

Don’t snicker. Hear us out. Go back to the roots of the current crisis. Twelve years ago, we sent the original Dream Team, the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled. Plus Christian Laettner. Opponents rolled over, asked for autographs. And that was before halftime. But the world also saw how far they needed to go and went to work, improving faster than we ever thought possible. Now they’re beating us at our own game.

Worse still, this isn’t our game anymore. Or, as Tim Duncan put it, “FIBA [stinks].”

International ball looks nothing like NBA-style hoops. And no, that’s not a reference to the preponderance of hairy deltoids and flopping, Nash-esque ‘dos. Powerhouses like Argentina, Lithuania and Puerto Rico thread the needle. Move without the ball. Play a flowing, unselfish team game.

More than that, they make jump shots. Novel concept, to be sure. Argentina shot 54 percent from the floor and 50 percent from behind the 3-point line in its commanding semifinal victory. Lithuania buried triples in the bronze medal game. If Steve Kerr played for the former Soviet satellite, he might not make it off the bench.

Watch the video. Check the stat sheet. Bite down on that bronze medal to make sure it’s real. Other countries have taken the skillful parts of the game — the crisp fundamentals that the first-edition Dreamers executed so well — and made them their own.

Which is exactly why we need to enlist our best streetballers.

Greece was home to the fabled Trojan Horse; after USA Basketball’s Grecian burn, we need an updated bait-and-switch, one that doesn’t star Brad Pitt’s rear end. The entertaining, style-over-substance AND 1 Mix Tapers won’t force everyone else to raise their collective game — they will sucker them into lowering the bar. Back to our level.

Genius, we know.

America gave the world a man on the moon, the Bill of Rights, the technology to keep the hot side hot and the cool side cool. Take the next step. It’s time to share the joy of 1-on-4 isolation plays. Of dribbling for the sake of dribbling. Of no blood, no foul. Of knowing that a bricked jump shot is only as good at the tip dunk that follows it and that the only thing better than being able to play is having the potential to play really well by the time your rookie contract expires.

Back in the dark days of the Cold War — that is, the last time we finished gold-less — Ronald Reagan called on the Soviet Union to “tear down that wall.” With every ankle-breaking crossover into a spinning layup, our newest Olympians will issue a similar siren’s song: tear down those fundamentals. Forego all that teamwork. Give in to your hoops id, to the unmatched satisfaction of knowing that you are, in fact, the man. Even if it’s on a 30-win team.

With any luck, our AND 1 ballers will inspire other nations to adopt the AAU model of player development, much as the first Dreamers inspired a legion of European basketball schools in which players learn boring skills like cutting, screening and running the pick-and-roll. The key? Get ‘em while they’re young. Ply ‘em with free shoes, Xboxes, trips to summer tournaments in Vegas. In a generation, foreign coaches will be so obsessed with raw athletic ability, they will be fielding inexperienced players like Amare Stoudamire instead of the polished, savvy 28-year-olds kicking our tails.

Now, understand that none of this will happen overnight. It’s going to take time, perhaps a decade, to fully undo the example we have set. At first, the signs won’t be obvious. A five-step travel. An errant alley-oop off the backboard. A series of bricks from an Italian forward who’s just dying to throw it down in transition. But have faith. Be patient.

When the first Lithuanian point guard bounces the ball off an aging LeBron James’ heezey (that’s head, for the unschooled), then dribbles through Carmelo Anthony’s creaky old knees before ignoring four open teammates to attempt a reverse dunk in traffic, we’ll know. Mission accomplished. Hang the banner and put on the flight suits. And if we’re still not sure, the ensuing rush of Lithuanian fans to the floor — all of them deliriously cabbage-patching — will tell us.

Of course, there’s just one catch — one potentially fatal snag. The AND 1ers might decide to stay home, same as most of our best players did for Athens. No problem. In a pinch, we can always send the Globetrotters.

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