J Walking

J Walking

Hockey and basketball, the US and the USSR

The “Miracle on Ice” is Beliefnet’s greatest sports miracle. There, in Lake Placid, a bunch of college kids and an unknown hockey coach beat the Soviet Union and the rest of the world and won gold in the Olympics.

In hindsight, the Soviet defeat foreshadowed their country’s decline and eventual destruction. Their core was hollow, it was inevitable.

As we researched that miracle and looked at other “miracles” a question begged answering: What is there to be said about the inability of US Men’s International Basketball teams to win in international basketball competition – a sport we once dominated just as much as the USSR once dominated hockey.

Since the US won gold in Sydney in 2000, no US men’s team has finished higher than third. Despite being comprised of multi-million dollar a year NBA professionals, we can’t win. These are supposed to be the best of the best, the “dream teams.” Yet in the 2002 world championships we were sixth (behind everyone from Yugoslavia to New Zealand). In the 2004 Olympics, the men’s team was third (behind Argentina and Italy). Last year, the US finished third again in the world championships in Japan (behind Spain and Greece).


Does the US’ inability to win in international men’s basketball competition suggest something about the state of our country as Lake Placid suggested something about the USSR?

Certainly the US is unlikely to disintegrate any time in the near or distant future. Our economy is fundamentally strong. Our freedoms are unparalleled. And I am probably reading far too much into this.

But maybe not. Maybe means something more than that our basketball skills have weakened vis-a-vis the rest of the world. Perhaps it is that our wealth and our comfort have made us a bit complacent, a bit fat, a bit lazy and unless those things are addressed America won’t be as strong as it used to be. Perhaps it is that our collective spiritual soul is weak as well and that we haven’t the will we once did and basketball is giving us a glimpse of that.

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posted January 30, 2007 at 12:42 pm

I think both analogies are inaccurate. You cant say the Soviet team lost because the Soviet system was a failure. That team was incredible. More likely the cause was that they were overconfident in the likelihood of their victory and didn’t give their best effort. The Americans knew what they were up against and rose to the occasion.We lose in international basketball because we cherry-pick individual players and then don’t form them into a cohesive team. Basketball is a team sport and having the 5 greatest talents on the floor isn’t as good as having the best team. If they trained like a team for a considerable amount of time, they would do much much better.

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posted February 1, 2007 at 7:09 pm

Actually, my memory of the “miracle on ice” was one of us gasping in horror that our country had fallen so low that a win in the Olympics would even matter. We always believed that only countries that counted for nothing in the world would care how well they did in the Olympics while real powers had better reasons for pride.

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Eric McErlain

posted February 1, 2007 at 7:39 pm

I had the same thought, about five years ago.

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astorian, austin TX

posted February 1, 2007 at 10:25 pm

The short answer is, no.The 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” represented the best of the best in American basketball. Half the players on that roster were future Hall of Famers. More recent U.S. teams, like the 2006 Olympic team, have NOT included the best of the best. Don’t believe me? Who was the top American point guard in the NBA in 2006? Chauncy Billups. Who was the top American power forward? Kevin Garnett. Who was the most dominant American center? Even now, when Shaq is healthy, he’s the best by far. Who’s the best American shooter in the NBA? Kobe Bryant. Were ANY of those guys on the Olympic team last year? Nope. Because most American professionals regard the Olympics as a waste of their time. Basketball players in other countries, on the other hand, typically take a lot of pride in playing in the Olympics and beating the Americans. Then there’s the simple fact that the last few American squads were VERY foolishly assembled. In the international game, three-point shooting is key. The American squads have had way too many small forwards and not enough guys who can make jump shots.There’s no question that other countries have closed the gap substantially in basketball. And that’s not surprising at all. In 1956, the American college players (led by Bill Russell) slaughtered every foreign team they played. In just 16 years, the rest of the world caught up to our collegians, and the Russians won the gold (with the help of some horrible officiating). In the same way, just over a decade after the original Dream Team win the gold without working up a sweat, the rest of the world has caught up to our second-tier players. That said, there is NO doubt in my mind that the U.S. has the best basketball players, and that they’d still win gold almost every time if the best of the best really wanted to play and if they were willing to put in enough time to become a cohesive team. But most of the best American players DON’T want to play and DON’T see the value of participating in the Olympics. We definitely have the best players in the world, by far- but we can no longer expect to win at the Olympics just by tossing together a bunch of mismatched NBA players at the last minute.

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posted February 2, 2007 at 1:55 pm

One other thing- does the victory of Spain somehow suggest a renaissance of Spanish culture, and the emergence of Spain as an economic and cultural superpower? Of course not. It’s just a game!

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