But first, an indictment of the so-called architect of the new, improved USA Basketball program.
Slick as They Come: As we get deep into international competition, one thing simply must be said: Jerry Colangelo didn't save USA Basketball.
Well, at least not as advertised. He did get the commitments of superstars that led directly to the gold medal in Beijing (that should be read in your best Bill Cosby voice), but he didn't build anything lasting. And that, if you think back, was what we were promised. That's not to say that USA Basketball is in crisis. Despite a height-starved roster that has some people freaking out, America appears to be cruising right through the Worlds, which haven't even started yet.
After beating Spain and Lithuania in heated exhibitions this weekend, this Kevin Durant-led squad looks to have some pluck up its face. Cue Dracula laugh and thumb piano loops.
But what if Team USA gets trounced, and then -- thought of all thoughts -- can't recreate the star-studded surge of the Redeem Team? Colangelo asked for three years, stars gave it (some paid a price), and now, we're already seeing a reluctance to show up summer after summer. That's why we're headed into battle with a "we got next" squad that's more USA Select than August Team USA.
Then, we kick it back to Colangelo, brilliant architect of the new USA Basketball and ask, "what now?"
Except we're not supposed to be asking this question. Colangelo, so the story goes, restored USA Basketball to its former glory by mimicking the continuity, and humility, that undergirds countries like Spain. He put the "national" and "team" back in "national team". After the trauma of the 2004 Olympics, character would be prized, as would players who knew their place.
To Colangelo, the closest thing to other countries' long-running national programs was college ball. That's how Mike Krzyzewski came to be head coach, and everyone draped -- quite dramatically -- in stars and stripes. He brought them something bigger than themselves. College, country, service, who cared. The point stuck.
Now, let's fast forward to 2008. What was the Redeem Team made of?
Aside from Shane Battier, who by then was his own kind of star, the Redeem Team sure looked a lot like the ultimate crop of All-Stars. Krzyzewski was the coach, but Mike D'Antoni served as an assistant. Coach K brought inspirational clatter and upright window dressing. On the ground, his leadership was of the loose, hands-off variety. Otherwise, why let D'Antoni within a thousand yards of the team?
Colangelo deserves kudos for securing the services of every player of note (not old and dinged-up). But that's not building an institution. It's a demonstration of one man's clout. And it's sorely focused on a single year.
The gold medal was attained, the objective realized. More importantly, his players did so by imposing the NBA on the rest of the world -- exactly the kind of lazy thinking that Colangelo had sought to move past. Also, let's not forget that it was during the Olympics that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh first hatched (however fancifully) the idea of playing together on one team. That alone shows how far the Redeem Team was from Colangelo's original vision. It was by the players, for the players.
Since the USA need not qualify for the 2012 Olympics this summer -- the 2011 FIBA Americas tournament next year is easy run; a college B-team could contend -- anyone who wants to play will be entering the fray with zero summer bonding. This summer's gang is actually closer in spirit to, say, the monstrosity that was Dream Team 2. It looks like Colangelo will have to go door-to-door, hat in hand, asking again for another shot at Olympic glory. That doesn't look like a long-term plan to me.
Or maybe we can blame this all on Obama. Between 2004 and 2008, patriotism meant something. Exactly what, we're not sure, but personally, professionally, and sentimentally it was a hot-button signifier. These days, it's neither used as an instrument of fear nor as a facile means to praise. Representing your country is, as it should be, neither compulsory nor automatically hot stuff. Done right, it's a long, hard commitment, and there's no mistaking a short-term goal -- however exciting -- for a real lasting program. The Redeem Team, awesome as it was, can't paper over the fact that USA Basketball goes limp after 2008.
Take a look at the current team. Do you see this as a sure-fire champ in 2012? If not, we're back at square one, minus the moral fervor that once fueled USA Basketball. The job is done. The problem on Colangelo's hands is how to convince players that, in fact, they really didn't accomplish squat. (BS)
Cherish the Action Painting: If this version of Team USA played in the NBA, it'd be a cult favorite: it's fast, small and sometimes violent. The remarkable ubiquity of athleticism on the roster constantly threatens to set the floor on fire, as Team USA did late against Lithuania on Saturday and in several runs against Spain Sunday.
The win over Spain showed that Dream Team 2010 won't be a complete embarrassment; fears the United States won't even medal in Turkey are slowly fading away. The athleticism has practical uses: the Americans can't shoot, but they grab enough offensive rebounds to mask that; they can't defend the rim, but they make it difficult for opponents to get there.
But only the insincere are still hung up on where Team USA finishes first and foremost. Wouldn't we rather see compelling, competitive basketball than a three-week reassurance our country is excellent at this sport? That's the brilliance, accidental it may be, of this incarnation of the Dream Team: it is, at the same time, both a disaster waiting to happen and an aesthetic masterpiece in the making. It's a basketball Pollock.
That won't be reason enough to cheer from some columnists, who will find every reason to make a less-than-gold finish about some fatal flaw in NBA basketball, or the ruddy character of these players, or an indictment of international basketball as a sport, or some other completely insincere garbage schtick written as indisputable fact.
The simple truth is that the World Championship field has a few other good teams, and that the tournament will be competitive. It's no great shame if the Americans fall to silver, bronze or even lower. You aren't going to lose your Costco membership. Just enjoy the idea of Russell Westbrook feeding Lamar Odom, or a Derrick Rose-Kevin Durant pick-and-roll. Stand aghast the high dribbles, the copious traveling calls, and the defensive boners. Treat Team USA's summer like a gallery opening, and you'll have a lot more fun. (TZ)
Fear and Loathing in Secaucus: Delonte West got ten days for, in the immortal words of Malachi the Nutcracker, rolling around the streets "cold strapped like an alley rat" (dope but NSFW). Gilbert Arenas was put on ice for most of a season for a prank gone awry. There were extenuating circumstances, to be sure. West is certifiably mentally ill, while Arenas dared cross David Stern after the commish had expressed his extreme displeasure with Gil's behavior. The precept is simple: It's not so much the gun toting that matters, but how players behave in the wake of it. Arenas, with his outlandish FINGER GUNZ performance, thumbed his nose at the idea that guns were serious business.
Is this fair? Maybe not, and yet Stern's reasoning is sound. This is about the image of the league, not individuals. Or, to put it another way, there are right and wrong ways to deal with gun charges. Arenas made the mistake of thinking that, as a high-profile individual, he had some wiggle room. The truth is, Gil probably had less because the world was paying attention to his case. Stern was willing to deal, but only if Arenas fell in line. The league simply couldn't afford anything else. (BS)
Louder Than a Bomb: That Jason Whitlock has written rather infrequently about the NBA is an oddity; few big-name mainstream sports columnists working today cover the intersection of sports and race so regularly and so passionately. But Whitlock, who wrote for the Kansas City Star for the last 16 years before moving to FOXSports full-time last week -- and explained why in a three-hour tour de force explanation on K.C. radio last Friday -- worked in a football town that flirts with baseball. No one writes about hydroponics on Mercury, and pro basketball just isn't a priority in Missouri right now.
Whitlock often makes news talking frankly about race. As such, it's unfortunate that doesn't write more often about the NBA, where race informs so many of the big-picture issues of the league. Whitlock doesn't need a radio special to shoot himself in the foot repeatedly, but he still brings more to the table of discourse -- food for thought, if you will -- every week than most celebrity columnists do in their entire careers.
While other sports columnists approach sports as know-it-alls or would-be God figures -- judging the personalities of men and women they'll never really try to know -- the real value, something Whitlock knows, is in using these athletes as avatars of society. Unfortunately, shrill judgment draws more eyes and ears than sane discourse, and there aren't enough columnists or publications willing to sacrifice ad dollars in the name of decency. (TZ)
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available this October.