Give the USA basketball team a break. After all, these are the nice guys, the ones who came. There are a lot of other players who couldn't find time in their busy summer schedules for the Olympics. And you know what? The Americans may yet go home with something valuable, and by that I don't just mean a medal, but a sense that the game can be more satisfying when you play with, and for, someone else.
Wouldn't it be funny if the story of this USA basketball team turned out to be "Hoosiers?" That's what Coach Larry Brown is working up to, and it may just pay off. It's too pat to write the Americans off as selfish and heartless, though I admit it was the easiest conclusion to jump to after watching them lose to Puerto Rico by 19. The Yanks are more complicated than that, as their fourth-quarter performance Thursday against Australia proved. They recovered from a 12-point deficit, pulled together for an 89-79 victory and showed signs that they're beginning to slough off their air of detachment and form an actual — believe it or not — team.
"This is great for us," Lamar Odom said. "It's wonderful for us. Humility makes you better. All the great winners lost at one time or another."
The final 10 minutes against Australia were their best of this tournament. For the first time, the Americans played defense on every possession, showed good ball movement, took (mostly) smarter shots and played as well without the ball as with it.
A lot of the Americans — though not all — have better intentions than they've been given credit for. They also have some legitimate problems that are not of their own making. They're inexperienced, their roster is not a particularly good mix, and they only had a few days of practice together before they entered this tournament. Nevertheless, there is a core group of players genuinely willing to listen to Brown in the interest of avoiding an embarrassment of historical proportions. Consider this huge development: With the game tied at the start of the fourth quarter, Shawn Marion made a defensive stop and saw LeBron James drifting downcourt toward the basket. Marion threw a long pass to James, who flicked it to Dwyane Wade for a layup. The ball never hit the floor until it fell through the net. It was the start of the game-winning, 10-point run, but that was the least of it. It was the start of a promising collaboration, the chief ingredient the team has been missing.
"We don't have them all, but they're starting to care about each other and understand the importance of representing our country the right way," Brown said.
And Brown is beginning to zero in on which ones they are. Team USA is gradually finding combinations of players who are willing and who work well together. The group that broke the Australia game open consisted of Wade and James, two of the youngest players on the roster, along with Marion, Odom and Tim Duncan.
"This young kid [James] and Dwyane Wade started throwing the ball inside, and all of the sudden everybody on our team got better," Brown said. "Hopefully we've got to remember that. But we're not dealing with Michael Jordans and Larry Birds and Magic Johnsons that have done that from the beginning, and it's going to take time for some of these young people."
Perhaps the biggest problem Brown has to overcome is that he's a great teacher trying to teach players who've never really been taught. The game Brown teaches is basketball-as-ethic. But what used to be called coaching is now called "criticism" by the modern young superstar. Disrespect. "The biggest challenge coaches have today on all levels is for guys to think of coaching as coaching and not criticism," Brown says.
This is the direct and warping effect of being raised in the incubator of the NBA, where swaggering acts of isolation are mistaken for big plays. This is not specifically their fault; they have simply never been taught to look for anyone else on the floor, never consciously relied on or trusted another player. It's not that they're innately selfish or willful. They simply haven't formed connections with others because they've been told since they were in AAUs that they're the "go-to" guy.
No wonder when Brown halts a practice to correct them, some of them duck their heads sulkily, and refuse to meet his eye.
"These kids have so far never been coached, benched, or asked to play roles within a team," he says. "But I have to keep talking to them, and I believe that deep inside when they see you care about them they are going to listen."
Brown's struggles remind me of an old Dean Smith story. Once, Smith decided to cure a young player of his selfishness. He cleared the practice floor and told the player to stand on the baseline. Smith tossed him the ball, and told him to inbounds it.
The player stood there awkwardly, with no way to inbounds it. "I don't have anyone throw it to," he said.
"Well, now you've learned it at least takes two of you," Smith said.
The players who surrender to Brown's coaching, and to these Olympics, will emerge far better players and people than they were before they came here. And should they somehow win out, they will experience a sweetness of victory unknown to most of their fellow players in the NBA, and even their Olympic predecessors, for whom a gold medal in basketball was almost a birthright.
Some of them seem to understand this, particularly Odom. The Greek word for "games" is "agones." It means, literally, the agonies or the struggles, and it suggests that the pain of loss is as important and enhancing as the pleasure of winning. Odom remarked, "You've got to remember that all the greats lose," he says. "All great teams lose, all great players lose. If you lose, you lose with dignity and pride."
Others still don't get it. At one point during a timeout, Brown paused as he drew on his clipboard and noticed that some players weren't listening, but were just sort of milling around on the outer fringes of the huddle. "You want in on this?" he snapped.
If there is one player here who steadfastly refuses to get it, it's Carmelo Anthony, who has complained about playing time and generally sulked. Brown clearly has no use for him; he only inserted him with two minutes to play against Australia. Anthony was on the floor for three seconds before he jacked up an ill-advised three. Then he gave up a two on the defensive end. He finished the game with an airball. At the buzzer, he stripped off his shirt, and wandered around barechested, as if he'd done something. "I have no use for a guy who doesn't buy in," Brown said.
The concept Brown is trying to get across to his players is not complicated, and it consists of an age-old truth: The deepest joy in basketball, as in anything, is collaboration; it's what makes the game both beautiful and purposeful. "I envy international teams, looking at players showing passion for their teammates, their country, their sport," Brown said wistfully. "It's a beautiful thing that we're missing."
The Americans still have a chance to get it. Some of them are starting to.