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Why American pros lose in international play

Why American pros lose in international play

By John Silveira

September 2, 2006

All-stars from the NBA are playing in the men’s World Basketball Championships in Japan. As I write this, they are fighting for the bronze — but when they went to Saitama, Japan, they were assured, in their own minds, that they’d coast to the gold. They didn’t. It wasn’t likely they would.

The Americans are not a great team. They’re great players but, I repeat, they’re not a great team. They may not be much more than a good team.

What we do when we assemble these teams is we assemble an all-star team. That’s not good.

The NBA All-star game is one of the worst spectacles in sports. It’s largely a bunch of selfish prima donnas trying to show how good they are not only at the expense of the other team but, often, at the expense of their own teammates. There’s no teamwork. It’s a lesson in how basketball is not to be played.

The NFL Pro Bowl is another yawner I can’t wait to miss.

Even the World Cup in soccer is a joke of sorts as nations try to assemble their best players, who are playing for professional teams around the world, into smoothly integrated teams. As near as I can tell, none of those teams play any better than the NBA All-Stars do in the World Basketball Championships. But it all evens out because they’re all all-star teams.

I know the NBA stars tried to make a team out of themselves. But this was, as it had to be, a rush job. On the other hand, most of the players on the Greek team frequently played together over the years. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, they know when to pass to a teammate and when not to. They figured out how to make a coordinated offense pour through the holes in a jury-rigged American defense.

Does anyone remember how the NHL All-Stars had trouble beating the Russian national team or the Red Army team? It’s not just that the Russian players were good, they were a team. And playing as a team is like having a seventh and even an eighth man on the ice in hockey. It’s like having a sixth or seventh man on the court in basketball.

Mark my words: A team of very good players will beat a bunch of great players, who don’t play as a team, time and again.

The only team sport that comes close to being a team of individuals is baseball. It’s the one game where play doesn’t vary an awful lot from team to team. It’s the team sport in which players from one team can be readily traded to and easily integrated into another team. In fact, it’s the one game where offense is mostly an individual effort. This is not so with other sports where offenses and defenses are more complicated.

Years ago, Dave Duffy, the publisher of BHM, and I played two very good high school students in an impromptu pick-up game on a playground in Medford, Massachusetts. Each of them was younger, quicker, in better shape, and were way better players than either of us. But each of them had to strut his stuff. Each was not only showing off to us, they were showing off to each other. Meanwhile, Dave and I fed each other the ball, worked together for the rebounds, and picked our shots while feeding the open man. Beating those two studs was embarrassingly easy.

I also used to play in pick-up games with another friend, now deceased. He was always the best player on the court: best shooter, best dribbler, best rebounder, but no one wanted him on their team because having him was a guaranteed loss. He took all of his shots from way outside just because he was the best shooter — but he never hit enough of them to win. He never passed to the open man. And he never got in the fray to rebound because he was waiting for someone else to get the ball and pass it out to him so he could make yet another loooonnnng shot — which was quite impressive when it hit. But, as I said, it didn’t hit often enough.

Team play is simply that: Team play. Even Patton pointed out that the idea of individual heroes is a myth. Oh, there are heroes, but they don’t win wars. What wins wars are armies that fight like teams. Teamwork made the German Army the best there was in its day. (Its only fault was that it took on too much — but that was largely because Hitler was a megalomaniacal idiot.)

The British Army and Navy created most extensive empire the world has ever seen simply because its army and navy, which fought as integral units, were the best of their day. The Roman Army, the Greeks when they fought under Phillip of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great, and the Mongols under Ghengis Khan were all coordinated fighting machines that were unstoppable, not armies of individual heroes. Even today’s Navy SEALs stress teamwork, not individual heroics. They’ll teach one-man methods of action, but they stress, and their success hinges on, teamwork.

If playing as a team is good enough for the worlds’ great armies, and if it’s good enough for the Navy SEALs, it should be good enough for teams that want gold medals.

Next time, forget the pros — unless it’s an intact pro team like the Heat or the Mavericks. (Okay, some of the best American teams have foreign players, but you get the idea.) Or send the number one college team — or number two, or number ten. The Europeans wouldn’t likely beat even the top American college teams — but they’d be able to beat the college All-Stars. A real American TEAM would be a force to be reckoned with. Keep the heroes at home. Or, better yet, send them again, but this time do a newscast from the airport before they depart and explain how and why they’re going to embarrass themselves; how and why they’ll lose. They’ll be a paradigm of how not to get things done.