Team USA’s modest run through the FIFA World Cup in Brazil this summer was considered an unqualified success, despite accomplishing little more than merely surviving a brutal preliminary round only to be promptly eliminated by Belgium in the round of 16. When all was said and done, we were just happy to be invited to the party.
But that wasn’t the real story. The real story was that more Americans watched the 2014 World Cup than ever before, shattering previous television ratings. It was a resounding indication that America’s former reluctance to embrace the world’s most popular sport has since given way to unbridled enthusiasm.
Admittedly, it’s hard not to get caught up in all the excitement, at the prospect of America someday conquering the last frontier of professional sports. That’s the only logical explanation for our relative indifference to the way the other Team USA routinely dominates the world in basketball. Soccer might still be the world’s most popular sport, but thanks to the massive television contracts David Stern and Adam Silver have brokered in thousands of markets all across the globe, basketball is in many ways the fastest growing sport.
With that in mind, it’s time to start appreciating USA Basketball again for the unparalleled powerhouse that it is, and the recently rebranded 2014 FIBA World Cup of Basketball at the end of August is a good place to start.
* * *
It’s 6:40 pm, Tuesday, April 8, and Coach Roy Rana has whistled for his squad to huddle up on the far end of the court here at the Trailblazers practice facility nestled deep in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon just off the Interstate 5 corridor. He whistles not with a standard issue referee whistle but with the power of his own lungs, and the sound he emits resembles that of a bird of prey. This is something of a trademark for Rana, and he’ll use it several more times during the World Select Team’s two-hour practice session to command his players’ attention. It’s 40 minutes into their second practice of the week leading up to the 2014 Nike Hoop Summit game, and the players are only now getting their first breather.
These practice sessions are grueling. It’s exhausting just watching them. But these young men have barely managed to break a sweat. Such is the boundless energy of youth. Less than two minutes later, practice resumes. Rana divides the frontcourt players (the forwards and centers) from the backcourt players (the guards and wings) to do separate drills. For several more minutes, they do variations on catch-and-shoot situations and pick-n-roll scenarios, followed by a variety of post moves. It is a virtual ballet of kinetic energy and perpetual motion. These drills are all about repetition and muscle memory, preparing the body to react quickly and instinctively in game situations, and it’s evident that they’ve performed these drills so many times that they could sleepwalk their way through them, even at three-quarter speed.
It doesn’t take long to realize that Coach Rana is a perfectionist. He stops practice frequently to correct his players’ defensive positioning and rotations, where their arms should be when guarding the passing lanes and playing on-ball defense, all the minutiae of the game that young players haven’t mastered yet. He’s demanding without being tyrannical, and his anxiety and his attention to detail is partially because he knows what he’s up against later in the week, i.e. a USA Team hungry to recapture the Nike Hoop Summit crown that has belonged to Rana and the World Select Team for the past two years.
Rana and his team are a microcosm for how the rest of world thinks about, and prepares for, USA Basketball. Aside from a few regrettable performances (namely the 2004 Athens Olympics), USA Basketball’s dominance has been widely documented, and the Americans have long been the standard bearer for basketball excellence across the globe.
The USA men’s teams have won the gold medal in 14 of the 17 Olympics games in which they’ve competed and have only lost the gold medal once since NBA players were permitted to compete in the games beginning with the transcendent 1992 Dream Team, which is often (accurately) described as the greatest sports team ever assembled. Overall, they have an astounding win/loss record of 130-5. Likewise, the women’s team has an impressive 50-3 record and has brought home the gold medal in five consecutive Olympic games.
The embarrassment that was the 2004 Olympics was a watershed moment for USA Basketball. For more than a decade prior, the USA had been able to bludgeon their way through the international competition behind superstar-stacked rosters alone, but a growing complacency combined with a windfall of international talent proved to be a recipe for disaster by the time the Athens Olympics rolled around. Nonetheless, the USA’s high profile meltdown on the international stage was also the catalyst for systematic change, and Team USA eventually emerged stronger and more focused than ever before.