Going global

The Baltimore Sun

What becomes apparent during the NCAA tournament is that there is an abundance of outstanding basketball talent in the United States, from California to North Carolina, Michigan to Texas.

Each bench has an abundance of coaching acumen as well. So why hasn't this embarrassment of riches translated into international success? Why are we wondering if a team of NBA millionaires can do better than third place in a tournament in which most of the competition is playing for love of country and a modest stipend?

For all of this talent, the U.S. men's team has struggled on the global basketball front. It finished sixth in the world championships in 2002, third at the 2004 Athens Olympics and third again at the worlds in 2006.

Expectations are high that the drought will end in Beijing this summer, when the United States will send yet another team of NBA All-Stars to reclaim Olympic glory. The team will be coached by Mike Krzyzewski, whose Duke Blue Devils were pushed to the brink by Belmont in the first round of the NCAA tournament before being booted out by West Virginia in the second.

Not to worry.

"I think they're taking all the strides to take back what we're supposed to be doing - winning," coach John Calipari said Monday during a phone interview. His Memphis team will play Michigan State tomorrow in a regional semifinal. "It's not a hodgepodge of All-Stars, the way it was back in the 1980s, when we could show up and win because we were so much better."

But if the men's basketball team wins the gold medal, it won't be because it mastered the international system or because Krzyzewski is a genius. It will be because the world simply has no answer for Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

The U.S. team, as it did in Barcelona in 1992 - when USA Basketball was first forced to use professional players - is still counting on a shock-and-awe approach to winning gold.

But shock and awe are not the answer. Pick-and-rolls are; so is having centers who can step out and shoot the three on offense and guard the perimeter on defense. Win or lose in Beijing, the United States, once and for all, must adapt to the international game.

"The international teams will play zone because they don't think the U.S. can shoot," Calipari said. "That's the way teams play us. They're playing a style that is a sharp contrast to ours and more suited to international ball. It's a wide-open style of basketball."

In the United States, it's time to do the unthinkable: widen the lanes. Widen high school and college lanes to 16 feet, and widen the NBA lane to international dimensions (yes, adopt the trapezoid).

Let's concede, for a change, that the rest of the world has it right. Clearly, the United States needs to adjust, although the attitude among its coaches is that, far from needing wider lanes, the team simply needs to have the right mix of skilled players chosen every four years from our abundant pool of talent.

"We can play like they play, but better," Calipari said. "At the end of the day, it comes down to players making plays, and our players are better."

We'll see about that soon enough.

College players should be put back into the Olympic mix. They were the staple of Olympic competition until 1992, and they bring passion and enthusiasm to the competition. Problem is, college players are no longer strong enough to compete at the Olympic level.

On the other hand, an all-star team of highly paid professionals may or may not be sufficiently motivated to endure the rigors of a nine-month season, then give it the old college try in Olympic competition.

In discussing the differences between international teams and the Americans, Calipari pointed to how Yao Ming went to great lengths to have an operation so he would be ready for the games. "He had surgery for one reason - so he can play and represent China in the Olympics," Calipari said. "It's like guerrilla warfare, where the other guy is willing to die for his cause and you're not. Now all of a sudden there's a different mentality, and you're not winning."

Calipari was not suggesting that the United States' players are not patriotic. Patriotism is deeply personal. However, among high-profile players, the notion of competing for one's country is less pronounced inside the United States, where the focus is on playing for a professional team or a university.

The answer - for national pride and continuity - is to have some sort of permanent national team. Calipari has an even better idea: send the NBA champion. His idea would involve identifying a core group of eight or nine players from the championship team, then adding two to three players from the outside.

Widen the lane, concentrate on perimeter play, send the NBA champions. Regardless of what happens in China this summer, the United States must change its global ways.

William C. Rhoden writes for The New York Times.

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