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How many times do we hear fans try to assign wild-eyed political symbolism to sports teams? My friend Zeke is convinced that "If the Yankees win that’s good for Bush!" I’ve also heard, "The Detroit Pistons beating the LA Lakers will give confidence to blue collar workers around the country." Or my favorite irrational analysis, "I bet they fixed the Super Bowl so the ‘Patriots’ would win–you know….because of the war."
But the Olympics are a different beast. The US as the world’s lone superpower lord over the Olympics like Alexander the Great. Our defeats are celebrated as dents in the armor. Rooting against the US outside this country becomes as natural as cheering for Rocky Balboa.
But a new layer of people inside the Unites States rooted against one US team in particular this Olympics, and for all the wrong reasons. The bronze medal winning US basketball squad became the team fans in the United States loved to hate. According to a national poll, 54% of fans said they wanted to see the team of NBA superstars lose–with another 20% reporting that they "kind of" wanted to see them taken down.
Some of this animosity is more racist than a Bob Jones University course syllabus.
As sports writer Jason Whitlock wrote, it is as if White America got a memo that read, "[You] do not have to support a group of black American millionaires in any endeavor. Despite the hypocritical, rabid patriotism displayed immediately after 9/11, it’s perfectly suitable for Americans to despise Team USA Basketball, Allen Iverson and all the other tattooed NBA players representing our country. Yes, these athletes are no more spoiled, whiny and rich than the golfers who fearlessly represent us in the Ryder Cup, but at least Tiger Woods has the good sense not to wear cornrows."
The confederate confines of talk radio have been the breeding ground for this anger. On one show, a caller who identified himself as a former member of the American military, said he hates Team USA because they don’t "represent the America he fell in love with." When asked to describe this America he fell in love with, he said, "It was a country you could walk the streets without worrying about being mugged.
Another ESPN morning radio host–in an over-caffeinated frenzy–even called the players, "uppity"–this being the classic slur for Black people who "don’t know their place."
Normally the code is subtler: this team is "too hip hop". They "don’t care" or they have "too much attitude and swagger" are more popularly used. But "uppity" is about as subtle as a Bush campaign ad.
The racial slings and arrows are easier for the sporting public than the uncomfortable truth. The straight dope is that the US no longer owns a patent on the game of basketball. Unlike 1992 when the first Dream Team of Magic, Larry and Jordan posed for pictures and signed autographs for opponents and then won by 40, the teams of Argentina, Italy, Spain, Lithuania, and even Puerto Rico, now play an equal or superior brand of basketball. They weave around the court like it’s the beautiful game of soccer, with back door cuts, infectious flair, and libertine emotion. It’s no coincidence Argentina won the gold in both basketball and soccer. They play both sports with a joy and teamwork that is a wonder to behold.
But instead of analyzing why Argentina won, we get the gutter analysis of why the US lost. Forgotten is that the US players are playing against international teams that have been together for a dozen years. Forgotten is the fact that these so called "lazy" players, agreed to come while the top NBA stars refused to play. Forgotten is that the NBA is now an international league with players from Puerto Rico’s Carlos Arroyo to Argentina’s Manu Ginobli, to China’s Yao Ming. Most importantly, forgotten is that International Basketball bears about as much resemblance to the NBA as Tai Chi does to Judo.
International ball is a game of constant passing, three point bombing, sharp shooting goliaths, packed in Zone defenses and a paint that is shaped like a geometrists nightmare–some sort of trapezoidal rhombus.
As former NBA coach Dr. Jack Ramsey wrote, "It may be just about impossible to teach the international game to a group of NBA players in the span of a couple weeks. Coach Brown, and assistants Gregg Popovich and Roy Williams, are among the top coaches in the game today. [and] they haven’t gotten the job done."
The US lost because USA Basketball–not the players–were arrogant enough to think they could roll the balls on the court and other teams would genuflect in front of the NBA’s marketing might.
Count me as someone who is glad the US lost–it’s always good to see William "Braveheart" Wallace stick it to Longshanks–but the racist scapegoating reveals all that is bankrupt about the so called Olympic spirit. Face the facts: Argentina is on top of the basketball world because they can pass, shoot, and run, better than anyone in the world. They have taken down the master’s house with the master’s tools.
DAVE ZIRIN has a book coming out this Spring 2005, "What’s My Name Fool: Sports and Resistance in the United States (Haymarket Books). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.