Team USA no longer a star but still carries the expectation of one
This year's U.S. squad is more of a curiosity overseas than a basketball power
American players receive little in return for losing their summers at home
Though fans in the States care little about the Worlds, they still expect wins
ISTANBUL -- The five-star Four Seasons at which the players, coaches and staff of USA Basketball are ensconced for the FIBA World Championship sits peacefully on the Bosporus, on which they enjoyed a Saturday night dinner cruise. On those rare occasions when the players get out of their hotel, they are objects of curiosity themselves and therefore largely immune from the principal irritation faced by tourists in this ancient city. Which is: If a gentleman on the street asks you where you are from, he is actually asking, Please come into my store and watch a demonstration of rug weaving, which we will kindly do for you, and sample many products that you will love and cherish and can be shipped anywhere, even Alaska. That's close to a direct quote.
So, I am not suggesting that we hold any kind of pity party for the U.S. team. It deserves no medal of honor, no speech from the floor of the House, no proclamation from the home-state governor.
But let's be clear about this, too: The sacrifices the Americans are making by giving up a good part of their summer should not be ignored, for they can expect precious little in return.
"Just like we have to sacrifice our roles on this team, we had to sacrifice our free time to be here," said Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love, who has played well in limited minutes in the U.S.' six games through Monday. "Granted, we'd still be working out at this time of year, but we'd be with our families, still be able to do what we want. But you know what? I wouldn't want to be any place but here."
On Monday night in the Round of 16 they were in Istanbul's Sinan Erdem Arena, taking on Angola, which hasn't much surfaced on the world basketball map since Charles Barkley threw an elbow at one of its players in the opening game of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. The U.S. won, 121-66, a victory that will draw nothing but yawns back in the States, where the results of, say, the Andre Iguodala-Carlos Morais matchup did not hit the SportsCenter crawl. But what if the margin had been, say, 10, 15 or even 20 points? The prevailing opinion would've been: "What's the matter with these guys?"
Interest will increase back in the States as the tournament moves on -- Russia is the next opponent in the quarterfinals on Thursday night -- but, to re-emphasize a point made endlessly, nothing will mean anything except a gold medal. Win and get a collective yawn, lose and get torched.
The we're-the-big-show-in-town factor isn't quite the same as it usually is for Americans in international events. This sprawling metropolis with a population listed at 17 million (but believed by one to be closer to 30 million) could swallow up any event, and this one feels semi-swallowed. As the U.S. beat Angola by 55 points on Monday night, it was the U2 concert at Ataturk Olympic Stadium (not the action at Sinan Erdem) that held sway with the local populace. And it was Bono, not U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski or Kevin Durant, who got the Monday photo-op with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
There is much roster confusion, too. All over Turkey I've been asked, "Where is Kobe Bryant?" for it is Black Mamba's likeness that is plastered on the billboards advertising the tournament. In the window of the Nike store on Istiklal, one of Istanbul's main commercial thoroughfares, are displayed two U.S. jerseys: Bryant's No. 10 and LeBron James' No. 6. Soon, even they were gone, replaced by the likeness of three players from Turkey's national team, which, by the way, has looked strong to this point. An English-language newspaper in Istanbul did accurately point to the real U.S. star with a Monday headline that read "Durant and Friends Lead U.S. Into Angola Test," but ran a photo of Chauncey Billups instead of Durant.
Further, except for Durant and point guard Derrick Rose, these guys can't even be sure they will be on the Olympic roster for London in 2012, which is when America will again get interested in international competition. (That is purely my guess, by the way; no one has any idea what the Olympic roster will look like.) Bryant and all those guys from the Miami Heat may once again want to play, and it will be bye-bye for several members of this team.
"It would be great to play in the Olympics," said Lakers forward Lamar Odom, whose versatility has been a major factor in the U.S.' dominance so far, "but we all knew coming over that this team was for this tournament."
Yes, there is something refreshing about watching this young team run around, play defense like a bunch of demons and try to forge an identity in a tournament that most of America isn't following. Odom, 31 with two championship rings, and Billups, 33 with one, make a nice contrast on a team so young that the 21-year-old Durant seems like an elder statesman. It truly seems to be a bunch of guys who are here because they want to be.
"The U.S. hasn't won this since 1994, so it's very important for us," Rose said, conceding that he himself didn't know that fact until Krzyzewski emphasized it at the first practice. "Sure, I made some sacrifices to be here. I'm a family guy and spend most of the summer around my mom. But you don't really know how serious it is for every other team until you get in it. This is bigger than the Olympics for every country here, so you know what? That's how we started looking at it too."