Monday, August 13, 2012

Public Readings - U.S. basketball team is beautiful to see

Public Readings - U.S. basketball team is beautiful to seeThe richest team at the Olympics is dancing together and dumping water on their coach and generally acting like old friends at a wedding reception. If you like your NBA stereotypes outdated and plain wrong, this isn’t the scene for you. Move along. Nothing to see here. For the rest of us, there is everything to see.

The point of Team USA playing basketball in the Olympics has never been about winning gold, which the millionaire superstars did by beating Spain 107-100 here on Sunday. Winning gold for USA Basketball is something like not running your car into a tree on the way to dinner.

What resonates is the way they win, it’s the virtual sightseeing on the way up the mountain, and toward that end this group should be as proud as possible.

This is $184.3 million of 2012-13 NBA salary and proportional ego spending their summer vacation together showing the world how basketball can be played. This is 12 of the best basketball players in the world downright giddy at the prospect of playing for free in a context with so much more to lose than gain.

“It probably sounds crazy to think that after winning a gold medal it’s bittersweet, but it is,” USA and (now) Clippers guard Chris Paul says. “It’s tough because you don’t get this opportunity any more. I hate that in a couple of months these guys are going to be my enemies. This is the funnest time of my whole life. I hate that this is our last time playing together.”

There is a cynical side of this to take, of course. There always is. You might hear grumblings that these guys came here because of Q ratings and endorsement contracts and the elevated earning power of a gold medal. But that perspective sets them up for failure even more than a tournament they’d be absolutely crushed for not winning against the rest of the world’s best players.

With anything approaching an open mind, what you see here is beautiful to watch. Elite athletes with enormous egos who trained their entire lives to be The Man accepting a co-op that requires personal priorities to be set aside in pursuit of a common goal none of them had to undertake.

They’re all better for it, too. Same for the Olympics, for basketball and for fans.

Think about what happened here. Lebron James and Kevin Durant, the two best players in the world right now and nearly certain to be remembered among the best of all time, playing together in their prime.

When was the last time two players that good played together at the height of their powers?

Lebron is working on one of the greatest years in basketball history: NBA MVP, champion and Olympic gold medalist. Michael Jordan and Bill Russell are the only other men to pull that off. The expectations put on him since he was a teenager are patently unfair, but somehow, he’s living up to it. At the end, he is standing in the same place the American gymnasts became famous and talking about the joy of holding the gold-medal bouquet of flowers.

Durant went all Rucker Park again, scoring 30 points on 18 shots in his evolution from too unselfish on this team to too good for defenses. He’s 23 years old, barely five years removed from dropping 25 in the first half at Allen Fieldhouse as a freshman at Texas.

Chris Paul controlled the second half, Kevin Love made stops and grabbed rebounds, Kobe Bryant hit shots when the Americans needed them, on and on it goes. You’re free to like or dislike whatever you want in sports, of course, but if you can’t like this team, there’s a good chance you’re too stubborn about the NBA or you just don’t like basketball.

The days of Olympic blowouts happening simply because the other team isn’t American are long done by now. Most people understand that. This is a different basketball time. A better basketball time.

What Team USA needs — besides the resounding defeat of David Stern’s stupid, shortsighted and greedy under-23 idea — is for this group’s commitment to become precedence and the rule instead of a memory and the exception.

Basketball is a gorgeous sport when played this way, by immensely talented players not just willing but wanting to fit together for a different purpose than the one for which they sign max contracts.

They are examples of what can be possible for a sport still more popular and important back home than anywhere else in the country, and they are a direct and absolute destruction of the stereotypes too many still hold about their league.

The richest team at the Olympics is also the one risking more loss for less gain than anyone else here, and the one giving so much more than they take. Nobody can be sure what the future is for Olympic basketball. This may be the last team of its kind.

If so, it’s one worth remembering.