There is something absurd and generally perverse about a nearly three-week tournament in which losing isn't a natural outcome for one team, and yet once more invincibility has become the source of joy and celebration following the Olympic men's basketball gold medal game.
Perhaps the arena will be different in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro and maybe Spain or Argentina or Russia will become a legitimate gold-medal contender and Olympic basketball will again have meaning. In the meantime, watching USA basketball is less about the Americans against the world, or even the players competing against themselves or their Dream Team predecessors, but instead the USA against the dollar.
The players were terrific. Their jobs were to win and they did, sometimes destroying overmatched countries by 83 points and other times finding the proper six or seven minutes of inspired play to separate themselves. More importantly to the national identity, the real goal of "Dream Team" basketball -- to maintain what is left of the American ego -- was again mission accomplished.
Since the original Dream Team (a name that should be exclusive to the 1992 stars but has been stretched by fans) was born out of the shame of not winning a gold medal for the second time when playing, no country in the field has actually been able to compete with the United States. No opposing team, that is, has been able to win barring the secondary narratives of spoiled American millionaires not coming to play, superstars bored with the game or infighting amongst themselves, unimpressed with the supposedly feeble international competition, uninterested in the concept of national pride until it is too late. Then, and only then, have the Americans been susceptible to defeat, and only then are new false narratives created, such as the so-called "Redeem Team" in 2008, when American NBA players needed to remind the country and themselves that despite the money, their national pride did exist, after all.
In the simplest sense, USA basketball best represents the American view of itself as unimpeachable Superpower. It is, in many respects, the final outpost of that outdated 20th century view. Throughout the past century, Americans could count on track and field, boxing, basketball and gymnastics -- even though the Soviet Union and Cuba challenged in some sports -- to maintain our sense of place in the world through athletics every four years. Jamaica has overtaken the U.S. as the sprinting powerhouse and the U.S. men didn't even medal in boxing for the first time in history. China rivals the U.S. in gymnastics, leaving basketball.
If the national vein was actually prepared for an injection of competition, it would have embraced losing in 1988 as a great but difficult lesson, for it was the only time the Americans fielded a team that simply wasn't good enough and it was proof that the country needed to do more than show up with a team of collegians to win. In 1972, the U.S. could argue it was robbed by the referees. In 2004, it was done in by its own greed and Roman largesse.
The reaction to losing to the Soviets in Seoul proved the American attitude wasn't ready to compete. Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were called to the rescue (after FIBA changed its rules to allow pros). Judging by these London Olympics, that attitude still doesn't favor open competition. Perhaps one day, American professionals will be legitimate underdogs in Olympic play and the best basketball player will be foreign, much like American sprinters today are underdogs against Jamaica and Usain Bolt.
For now, however, the suspense of Dream Team basketball, once it's clear that NBA salaries and egos won't overwhelm team chemistry, is whether it can overcome a three-point deficit with eight minutes left in the third quarter. Even though Americans have dominated in women's soccer and swimming, and the country won the most gold medals again, men's basketball epitomizes dominance just the way we like it. The very idea of actually losing in basketball is not accompanied by fear or respect of an opponent but the belief that American players must have been distracted, disinterested or not feeling particularly patriotic on that given day. Indeed, during the tournament, judging by the response of fans in the pubs and blogosphere and media, leading by single digits was a national insult.
Never mind the slim seven-point win Sunday, Team USA achieved the required result, affirming pride in the national basketball product – even if the result on the court for much of the tournament was not great, competitive basketball. The gold-medal celebration was proof that the wounds of 1988 haven't yet healed, and proof the best basketball player in the world, and maybe the best six to 10, are from the U.S. Despite the truth and platitude that the rest of the world is improving, this Dream Team reminded a changing nation facing higher unemployment, declining education and manufacturing and infrastructure, and parity in sports it once dominated, that it can still kick butt on a basketball court.