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Friday, September 17, 2010

Why are we -- I mean the sports media in this country -- so head over heels in love with the American basketball team that just won the FIBA World Basketball Championships last week?  I probably should have been doing my day job, preparing for my first class on Tuesday morning. But, as I sipped my automatic machine made latte on the 2nd floor balcony of the Red Roof Inn, the four story tower of the Hampton Inn looming across the parking lot, I felt the irresistible lure of setting down some thoughts on this infatuation. I'm not thinking of the action on the court itself so much as the storyline -- the myth -- that has been repeated ad nauseum in the American media.  I encountered one of the many instances of this while reading Mike Lopresti's recent column in USA Today over my complimentary Hot Breakfast at the Big Boy adjacent to my digs at the Red Roof.    It's a beautiful life.

Here, for those who didn't follow the tournament, are the facts:  the US won this year's FIBA World Championships and I'm glad.   None of the players that took the gold medal in Beijing in 2008 agreed to play for Team USA in the World Championships, with the result that Jerry Colangelo, who runs the USA Basketball program and Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski, assembled their roster in the two months prior to the tournament from a different, less acclaimed pool of NBA players.  The team played tough defense and ran the ball well and Kevin Durant had a terrific tournament.   I feel glad for Durant because he seems like a good guy and a good ball player; I feel glad that the team won, played well and avoided any kind of "Ugly American" incident on the court or off.  And that's about the extent of my feeling about what actually happened.  But, as I said, this is not so much a story about what actually happened or about my feelings about what happened, so much as a story about the story that has been circulating about what happened and my feelings about that.

That story inevitably begins with a backstory.  It may take different, sometimes very compressed forms for different writers, but in its main lines it goes something like this (which I'm blocking off as though it were a direct quotation to indicate that I'm paraphrasing):

Once upon a time, the US dominated international play fielding teams of the best college players and then, when the rules changes, with a series of Dream Teams of the very best American NBA players.  But there was a snake in the garden.  To begin with, the NBA's own aggressive globalization efforts began to pay off in the form of vastly improved play from international players in a number of foreign countries: Spain, Argentina, the Balkans, and France.   Then, at the same time, selfish and immature US superstars stopped considering it a priority to represent their country in international competition.  Finally, even those players that did agree to play for Team USA were at a disadvantage because 1) they weren't used to playing with another (unlike other national teams whose players had, in some cases, been playing with one another since their teen years); 2) they were selected for individual greatness and not in terms of the quality of the overall team they would combine to form; 3) they weren't coached with an eye toward the style and unique rules of international competition.  The result:  a dark period of USA Basketball:  a third place finish in the 1998 and 2006 FIBA Worlds,  a sixth place finish in the 2002 FIBA Worlds (held in Indianapolis no less), a third place finish in the 2004 Athens Olympics.  Even a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics was judged a sign of demise since several games were won by margins too narrow for comfort.   Finally, the sun begins to shine through these dissipating clouds when USA basketball got its act together, hiring Colangelo and Krzyzewski and requiring a three year commitment to training and competition from its NBA player pool.   This yielded a gold medal finish in 2008 in Beijing and all was right in our basketball cosmos.
But then,  the story arc dips into another trough of difficulty.

None of those players -- not Lebron James, not Dwyane Wade, not Dwight Howard, not Kobe Bryant -- wanted to play in this year's FIBA tournament.  The players that were selected were dubbed "The B-Team".  We couldn't expect much of this team because, for the rest of the world, the FIBA World Championship is more important than the Olympics.  
To intensify our investment in the drama, the typical storyteller injected some additional stakes

Not only the FIBA gold medal, but our spot in the 2012 Olympics in London was a stake because if the US didn't win the FIBA Worlds and its accompanying automatic qualifying bid in the next Olympic competition they would have to qualify for the Olympics through a round of inter-American competition and this would be more difficult than usual given an imminent NBA labor negotiation and the strong possibility that players who might be on strike at the time of the inter-American competition would be ineligible, leaving the US to face stiffened competition with nothing more than their best amateurs.
Now that the tournament has been played out and disaster averted, journalists and bloggers are falling over themselves to herald the over-achievement of "The B-Team," their moral stock rising, seemingly, on the tide of the "Redeem Team" players refusal to join the competition.  Here's how, again in summary, the story reaches its satisfying resolution.

Kevin Durant, humble and likeable, emerged from the shadows of the Redeem Team superstars James, Bryant, and Wade by putting on a tremendous display of scoring prowess.  While Kobe spent his summer lolling in the reverie of his recent NBA championship, and James and Wade spent theirs conspiring to join forces on the Miami Heat and greedily thrusting themselves into the media spotlight, Durant worked hard to get ready to represent his country in international competition and then, when the tournament began, put the team -- at least on offense -- on his shoulders and carried them to victory.  As for the rest of the players, undersized, not all that good, and unaccustomed to playing together, they pulled together under the wise tutelage of Coach K, played gritty old fashioned defense and then celebrated their surprising victory with the innocence and charm of the (all white) Hickory High Huskers knocking off the big, bad, black team from the big city in the 1989 film Hoosiers.  And it's a darn shame that the selfish superstars like James, Bryant, and Wade will probably displace this likeable bunch of underdogs on the team that represents the US at the 2012 Olympics in London.
So that's the story, the myth, that's being created and circulated and relished in the media here. It's a great, rousing story.  The only problem is that it rests on what might generously be called some exaggerations of actual facts, and some omissions of others.  Let me correct these first.

Kevin Durant was already, before the tournament, recognized as one of the top players in the NBA.  Durant was named College Player of the Year for his efforts as a freshman at the University of Texas (the only year of college ball he played).  In fact, he was heralded as the only freshman ever to win the award.  Then he was the second selection in the NBA draft.  In his first season, he averaged twenty points a game and was named rookie of the year.  In his second season, he averaged twenty-five a game.

Yeah, never heard of him
And this past season, his third in the NBA, he became the youngest player ever to lead the league in scoring, averaging 30 points a game, finished second in MVP voting (behind James and ahead of Bryant, Wade, and Hoard), was selected to the Western Conference all-star team, and was chosen as one of the five players (along with Bryant, Wade, James, and Howard) to the All-Pro team. He also helped his team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, to reach the playoffs, where the young, eighth seeded team pushed the top seeded, and eventual champion, Lakers to six games in their first round best of seven series.  Oh yeah, and when he came out of college to join the NBA, he signed a $60 million endorsement deal with Nike.

Certainly, the rest of Team USA's roster, top to bottom, lacked both the record of individual and team success and the star power of the 2008 Beijing Olympic team.  But it's quite a stretch to characterize them as "B Team" players.  Chauncey Billups was the third overall pick in the 1997 draft, the 2004 NBA Finals MVP, and has been an All-Star each of the past five seasons.  Lamar Odom was the fourth overall pick in the 1999 draft and, though his career has been checkered for personal reasons, was instrumental in the Lakers repeat title run this year as the first player off the bench. Derrick Rose was the first player picked in the 2008 draft, the 2009 Rookie of the Year, and an All-Star in the same year.  Among the other players, several were chosen in the top ten in their NBA draft cohort, and some had been first team All-Americans in college.

The FIBA World Championships may just as important to the players in other countries as the Olympics, maybe even more important for some of them.  But if such a generalization may be in some sense true, it doesn't account for the fact that some of the best and best-known international players in the NBA, the very players whose talent and visibility are held up as evidence that the rest of the world has caught up to the US in basketball  -- Manu Ginobili (Argentina) Nene Hilario (Brazil), Pau Gasol (Spain), Tony Parker and Joakim Noah (France)  Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), and Mehmet Okur (host Turkey) -- chose not to participate in the tournament.   One observer close to a several European players claims that the Olympics are, in fact, their top priority (after the NBA).

Finally, this is subjective (who is to say what is the requisite level of innocence and enthuiasm with which to celebrate an international championship?), but having watched most of the games in the 2008 Olympics, I'd feel hard-pressed to say that the superstars of the Redeem Team weren't excited to be there, and, even more, every bit as jubilant upon finally capturing the Gold with their finals victory over Spain.

Yeah, they don't care.
 Those players -- Kobe and others -- were also running around the court after their victory, slapping the hands of American fans in the stands and, in general, celebrating with the innocence and unbridled exuberance of a group of high schoolers winning their first state championship.

So if Kevin Durant didn't come out of nowhere and was already considered one of the best players in the world, why do we keep acting as if he did and wasn't?  If the rest of the US team didn't consist of a bunch of midget also-rans but rather were almost without exception successful and recognized as such, why did we act like it did and they weren't?  And if the rest of the world didn't bring its best players, why do keep insisting that they did?  And if the Redeem Team was excited to win too, why is it so important to say imagine that they weren't?  Why are the same media experts that participated in the circulation of all the facts that I described above now forgetting them?  What purpose is served by this?

I will be blunt, at the risk of over-simplifying.  I think what is served by this particular story, and this sort of storytelling in particular, is a particular national self-image, often not so subtly racialized if not racist, that we expect our athletes, especially our national athletes, to support.  It's that image that I sum up with the title of this post:  HoosiersNation.

Our National Team?
 That film fabricated the story of an invented small, rural Indiana high school team (the Hickory Huskers)  winning the Indiana state championship against a much more athletically gifted, all black team (with all black coaches and rowdy all black fans) from  South Bend Central.  In the process, players, fans, and coaches alike overcome obstacles, learn life lessons, and redeem their pasts.    Nevermind that the actual Indiana team (Milan) upon which the movie was based beat -- as Oscar Robertson, among others, has pointed out in his autobiography The Big O -- a Muncie Central team coached by a white man, supported by mostly white fans, and whose entire roster included only three black players.

But such realities don't need to get in the way -- any more than the facts I listed above -- of our seemingly endless need to see ourselves as a scrappy group of unheralded white guys rising, through hard work and the subordination of individual ego,  to successfully, joyfully, but humbly, meet the challenge of defeating a talented Other whose abilities and superior resources ultimately, cannot make up for their lack of heart and unselfishness.

How perfect that this year's quarterfinal game was played against the Russian team on the 38th anniversary of the 1972 Olympic Finals in which the (scrappy) US team (of all amateurs) lost to the Russian team on a last second basket, after the referees unfairly awarded the Russian team three different opportunities to replay the final seconds.  Though the players didn't make much of the anniversary, the press certainly did.  Nevermind that the 2010 Russian team (unlike the 1972 Soviet team) had done little in international competition.  Like Rocky facing the machine like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, our boys were playing out of desire and with heart, and, in the moral universe of our national fantasies, that always wills out over talent, technology, and heartless efficiency.  Finally, as if the brew weren't rich enough, this year's semi-final was played on the 9th anniversary of September 11th, 2001, helping to reinforce our collective desire to see ourselves as innocent victims and underdogs and to stoke our collective desire to assert the superiority of our self-assigned national values against overwhelming odds.

I like this year's US team.  I really do.  And I appreciate and respect what they achieved.  But I'm annoyed by the way in which the media has turned their story into a myth that permits us, as individuals and as a nation, on the court and off, to evade so many realities about ourselves (some good, some not so good) and, like an oversized infant blithely lumbering through a Lilliputian world, to cause so much suffering.  I don't want to identify with that team, that game, or that country.


Claire September 17, 2010 at 2:41 PM  

I wonder about that hard-scrapping narrative going through millions of heads on the way to work in the morning, peons and bosses and secretaries and everybody thinking of him or herself as a true-blue, full of heart, underdog. Weird.

C Meade September 17, 2010 at 6:45 PM  

To me, one of the most bothersome aspects of all of this coverage is that I can't really imagine that these sports journalists are so idiotic regarding the functioning of, y'know, sports. It's just sooo obvious that the name "B-Team" (like "Redeem Team" before it) was applied to this team even while it didn't fit. The flip-side of the story is that it's very lazy analysis of the situation by people who know that their jobs will be easier if they write towards this kind of narrative.
Thanks for calling out this emperor who has no clothes.

Yago Colás September 17, 2010 at 6:52 PM  

Totally, Claire, and I also imagine, like, some CEO, or Dick Cheney fancying himself a scrappy underdog, and then it gets very very creepy. It's like Montgomery Burns in a Hickory High uniform, shorts belted high above the waist.

Chris, thanks for reading. I wonder if sports journalists are idiotic about it, or just would rather pretend that the function and functioning of sports, its meaning in culture, and the way culture means through sports, just doesn't exist. That way they don't have to write about it, which they are probably scared to do.

Chris Love September 18, 2010 at 1:03 AM  

I'm glad to have read your post here. I watched the final in Kaş, a small town on the southern coast of Turkey, one day after the host team's very very exciting victory over Serbia. Nothing reinforces the absurdity of the US's obsession with the underdog narrative than watching the team play abroad. Turks gathered in Kaş's municipal cafe certainly didn't think they were watching their team defend a scrappy B-team. Of course, they were playing the imperial powerhouse. After the boring four quarters were over, people rose from the seats, shrugged their shoulders, and sauntered home. Much as US soccer fans would on losing to Brazil or Germany.

It's always funny when a national fantasy involves mustering hubris ("we can beat the world with only a B-Team!) in the service of humility (i.e., the Hoosiers narrative).

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