With both the NBA and NHL championships awarded, the sports world can finally turn its attention into the dog days of summer. As the Larry O’Brien Trophy and Stanley Cup are hoisted, summer gears up, presenting sports fans with a day in and day out grind to make it through to the start of training camp with the NFL. It’s nothing against baseball, but the sheer repetition of nine-inning, three-hour affairs are a test of a sports fan’s stamina, just as it is for the 162-game grind for its athletes.
Every summer, sports fans look for that something to break up the norm and provide them with some type of excitement when the days of July become hot and weary. In 2010, they had a month of the World Cup to electrify, especially since the United States remained relatively competitive. Last year it was the women’s turn, providing a month-long ride providing storyline after storyline, and once again sports fans became enraptured by a United States team with character, energy, and talent.
This year, the eyes of the American sporting world will break once again from baseball to an international stage; The Games of the XXX Olympiad open in London on July 27, providing a two-week break before American sports fans gear up for NFL Training Camp and the stretch run of the baseball season.
The Summer Games have a special place in American sport. It’s one of the biggest sporting events in the world, and the USA usually challenges for the top ranking of overall medals and the number of golds. It’s a symbol of American sporting dominance, and it’s something the fans of the nation have come to expect. But even if the United States isn’t to dominate in all sports, they recognize the need to be great in certain sports, the so-called “glamour events of the Games.”
Chief among those sports is basketball. The United States invented the game and dominated it for the better part of the previous 29 Olympic stagings. They’ve won the gold medal all but four times in men’s basketball and all but three in women’s. And ever since the 1992 Olympics that garnered so much attention, the United States isn’t expected so much to win as it is to blow out the competition.
But the problem for the United States is that its professional ranks aren’t what they were in 1992. In 1992, American sports fans fell in love with the idea of its professional athletes teaming together on the world’s largest stage. The entire world watched in awe of the 11 Hall-of-Famers simply cruising through their opponents in a clinic of roundball greatness. And, even as they caught up and eventually passed a group of selfish American ballers in 2004, the expectation has always been that the world’s best basketball players play in the United States, and when they play together as a team, they are unbeatable.
The conundrum for the United States has changed. Their athletes realize the need to check their egos at the door and fuse together as one collective unit. It’s no longer about being able to play with one another, even though if that doesn’t happen, the US fails. The problem now is that the American ballplayers, who used to be revered and beloved, are now perceived as selfish and arrogant. And with that perception existing even on domestic soil, this Olympics will be more about reclaiming some of the love and respect that’s been lost since the Redeem Team of 2008.
When the United States takes the court in the United Kingdom, their roster will consist of seven former or current NBA champions. Only three players will have played the 2012 season somewhere other than the world’s best league, and one of them is headed there as the presumptive #1 overall pick in the draft this week. Another seven will have competed on teams from the conference final round of this past playoffs, and five played with or against each other last week in the NBA Finals. Four are NBA Finals MVPs, including the current winner of the award. They’re rock stars and superstars, the very best at the very best level.
But the United States basketball team is far from likeable. Three of the members from that group mentioned above symbolize everything that’s wrong about the NBA. Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade, and Lebron James are the famed “big three” from the Miami Heat, the ones who sensationalized themselves with that God-awful introduction ceremony and public display of arrogance before they ever played a game together. They’re decidedly disliked by pretty much everybody. They’ll team with Kobe Bryant, who’s grown more appreciated by basketball fans because of what the Heat did, simply because he’s a throwback to a different era when players went to assassinate the competition by themselves. And Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are on the roster, members of the Boston Celtics who epitomize teamwork, even if they’re the sworn mortal enemy of both Kobe and the Heat.
Then there’s Carmelo Anthony, who orchestrated his trade out of Denver to the New York Knicks because he’s from Brooklyn. There’s also Lamar Odom,who was so hurt by trade rumors in Los Angeles that he demanded to be dealt, only to become a malcontent in Dallas for his new team all while nursing a reality tv show with a Kardashian. Of course, none of that compares to James, who is maybe the most disliked athlete in America these days.
The problem for the United States is that they’re going to the Olympics with a completely different team than in 2004. In 2004, the Redeem Team understood its mission, did so with a band of likeable ball players under the direction of one of the world’s most respected coaches. Hatred for the players was largely due to respect on the court, and when they put on the USA jersey, the hatred for those guys washed away. It was similar to 1992 in that regard, since players understood that they were playing for more than themselves and certain players were chosen because they knew what was at stake. It’s the same reason the 1992 team left Isiah Thomas off its list. They couldn’t upset the team mentality.
Four years changed just about everything. For starters, there’s a couple new guys who muscled into the alpha dog picture. Kevin Durant, probably the most likeable NBA player from this past year, is on the roster, along with Kevin Love, an underdog beloved because he’s doing it in Minnesota. James Harden is on the roster, and he became a folk hero after becoming the quintissential sixth man, all while getting donked out by Metta World Peace Artest.
The problem for the United States is that in the past four years, the formation of the “Heatles” epitomized why people dislike certain athletes. It used to be that fans didn’t like Kobe, Wade, Bosh, and James because they were good. Now they don’t like them because they made themselves out to be larger than the game. Maybe Kobe doesn’t belong in that group, but Bosh, Wade, and James do. And the further issue is that these guys don’t try to make anyone else around them better.
The ancillary issue is that the Miami Heat convinced these three to play together because they enjoyed each other’s company so much in Beijing in 2008. The Redeem Team’s trip to the gold medal provided the catalyst for the formation of the Miami Heat’s core, and going back to the Olympics seems something like returning to the scene of the crime. Even if Wade doesn’t play due to injury, James and Bosh are expected to. And people don’t like them.
Of course, if they don’t play, then we’re being robbed of America’s best. The United States constantly wants to put its best athletes out on the court in basketball, but the problem is that nobody outside of Miami really likes the best. There’s too much bad blood, too much negative karma surrounding some of these guys. Fresh off an NBA Championship, when the media started blowing tons of smoke up them, who’s to say Bosh and James aren’t too arrogant to play with Kobe Bryant? What happens when Lebron goes one-on-one with Paul Pierce in practice, and what happens if Anthony Davis is able to post up on Bosh? There’s always the desire to send the best, but what happens if the best are extreme front-runners who shut themselves down when the going gets tough.
This is a problem for the United States, one it needs to overcome in a month. It needs its best players to overcome exhaustion from a long playoff grind, and it needs them to be able to put aside personal differences that were a lot easier to discard in 1992. The players today are bigger than the game, their own personal brand. What happens when all of those brands start competing for the ball? And more importantly, how do those brands, which are tainted in the eyes of many, reclaim the love and trust of so many people when they’ve spent the past four years building themselves as the ultimate villains?
The Games open on July 27th in London. The first game is July 29th against France. In one month, when America’s eyes break from baseball to see how glamorous we can get, we’ll all find out.