LONDON – Kobe Bryant was at Wimbledon on Friday, taking in the epic semifinal match between Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro and signing autographs between games. His day off was unscheduled, but there was really no need for the U.S. basketball team to practice when that’s about all they did the night before against Nigeria.
Lucky for him, he got to see a match that meant something, two men giving it their all for country and a chance to play for Olympic gold. Not so lucky were the fans watching Bryant and his teammates play the latest mismatch of an Olympic basketball tournament gone bad.
All they got for their prized tickets was a 156-point scoring orgy that was about as competitive as a badminton match between China and South Korea.
Unlike the Chinese and South Koreans, Nigeria wasn’t playing to lose. The problem was, they had absolutely no way to win.
Not against Kobe and LeBron and the rest of the NBA All-Stars, who toyed with them in the first half. Not against the so-called U.S. reserves, who poured it on even more in the second.
Men or women, it doesn’t matter. The U.S. is so dominant in Olympic basketball that any game either team plays is over almost at the opening tip. Both teams will win gold medals, and both teams will win them without working up a sweat in the second half.
Twenty years after the original Dream Team was supposed to lift the basketball fortunes of countries around the world, about the only thing that has changed is that opposing players now wait until they get off the court to ask for autographs. This team may or may not be competitive with the one fronted by Michael Jordan, but it’s clear that if the caliber of international play has risen in the last two decades, it hasn’t risen by much.
At its best, this Olympic tournament is little more than a glorified exhibition. At its worst, it’s simply a joke.
Could it be time to finally end the charade and make the Dream Teams go away forever?
NBA commissioner David Stern thinks so, floating the idea earlier this year of following the lead of soccer and making Olympic basketball an under-23 competition in 2016 in Rio. His owners don’t like the time their stars need to dedicate to the international team, don’t like the fact they could get injured in the offseason, and, most of all, don’t like the idea they aren’t making money off them in the Olympics.
It won’t exactly bring parity back to the competition because even young U.S. players will almost always be better than any other country’s young players. And it will take away some shoe sales – which sometimes seem to matter more than the Olympics itself.
But if the 156-73 rout of Nigeria proved anything other than Carmelo Anthony can shoot 3s (making 10 of 12 of them), it’s that the Dream Team model is broken and there’s no way it can really be fixed. The U.S. has figured out how to play international rules and get the stars of the NBA to commit to a common goal, a combination that pretty much makes them invincible.
It has to be embarrassing to anyone who has to play them. It should be embarrassing for the Americans, too.
The U.S will win the gold, but there won’t be much to celebrate.
Enjoy it as an exhibition, if you must. But the Olympics should mean more than that.