Changes can make U.S. gold slam-dunk

September 04, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

Now, everybody is tired of the losing.

There's no more point in gloating when the U.S. basketball team and its despised NBA players come home without the gold in yet another major international competition. No, this isn't funny anymore. This group did things the right way, and it got them nowhere, relatively speaking.

No matter how much the world has caught up, no matter how much more other national teams play together than our hastily assembled all-star teams, the U.S. is supposed to be as good as gold in basketball every time. It's our birthright. No exceptions, no excuses. Not anymore.

Yet, in the wake of the best team assembled in several years still falling short at the world championships in Japan and settling for a bronze medal, that belief only raises this fundamental question: How important is this to us? How far are we willing to go to assure Olympic gold? How much are we willing to sacrifice?

And "we" means more than the players, the coaches and the brain trust at USA Basketball. It also means we fans. The cure could hurt.

The old diagnosis for the illness no longer applies. This group, led by LeBron and Carmelo and Dwyane and supplemented by non-All-Stars like Shane Battier and Kirk Hinrich, was not full of egos or agendas. They played hard, took no one for granted, acted professionally and maturely.

But they still lost.

No, there was no Kobe Bryant on hand, and he might have made the difference. So would a pure shooter, a true big man, and another week to get comfortable with who does what on a pick and roll. And a coach with experience and knowledge that corresponded to the job at hand; Mike Krzyzewski coaches a mean college game and can shill cars and credit cards with the best of them, but his understanding of NBA players and international play is limited.

Plus, we've already been reminded, this is a three-year process, building toward Beijing in 2008. Except that the point this time was to get there without a side trip to the qualifying tournament next summer. Oops.

Still, what the U.S. rolled out seemed plenty good enough to win. It won fairly easily in the bronze game over the Argentine team that had whipped it in previous Olympics and world championships. Yet it couldn't handle Greece.

That all makes the problems even worse.

The next step toward getting the system in order means a step away from the way things used to be - like the old system of sending college players. Don't even get wise and try to suggest that, unless you're all right with finishing last. That train done left the station.

But a similar massive shift is needed.

Such as: Create a permanent national team. Assign a permanent national coach, with permanent national scouts. Keep a pool of 30 or so players of all ages and levels on hand and groom them through various international competitions. Maintain that three-year commitment between Olympiads, during the offseasons, and at times in-season as well (in other words, work it into the schedule and have players leave their teams if necessary).

And ...

Trim the NBA regular-season schedule down to 70 games, maybe fewer. Cut the preseason schedule in half, to four games. Compact the playoffs somehow: Return to at least one best-of-five round, or even reduce the number of playoff teams from 16 to 12.

Yes, that massive.

That is the only way players will have enough time to devote to the national program and save their bodies, which desperately need the offseason to heal.

It's also the only way the national program can prepare for opponents and get a chance to get used to playing with each other, to install strategy, to establish a style - to form a team.

Granted, it means the NBA, its owners, the players and networks give up tons of money, and fans have the season and their teams twisted inside out - with the possibility of, say, Kobe leaving the Lakers for a week just when playoff seeding is on the line.

Everybody will hate it. Unless it assures that the United States reclaims its rightful place in the basketball universe.

Maybe even if it does.

It's up to you. Can you live with the NBA being turned upside down every single year, for a shot at gold every four?

Or do you want the schedule left as is, the players and teams kept intact to battle for your and your city's honor in the playoffs, justifying your financial and emotional investment - while the Americans' Olympic hopes stay perpetually up in the air?

It's a tough one. A lot tougher than sitting at home griping about those lazy, greedy, unpatriotic pros every other year.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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