Updated: September 8, 9:17 PM ET
Solving USA Basketball's long list of problems
By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com
INDIANAPOLIS -- Um, where do I begin?
Has there been a more embarrassing moment in the history of basketball in the United States?
The '72 Olympics? We wuz robbed, or so the conventional wisdom has gone; after seeing Three Seconds from Glory, I'm not so sure. The '87 Pan Am Games? Oscar went nuts; what can you do? The '88 Games? We sent our kids to do a man's job.
But this? This?
How do you explain that Ashraf Amaya has a medal from his trip to the World Championships, and Paul Pierce doesn't? (What do you get for sixth place, anyway? A keg of Pabst?)
An overhaul is needed. Right now. Or, as Ben Wallace put it on Thursday, "We ain't looking for excuses. We came out and we got our ass handed to us, and that's just the bottom line."
There are two people who can help immensely with getting this sea change started, if it is important enough to them for it to happen:
The Commish and Billy Hunter, the head of the players' union.
They are the two who have the muscle to change what must be changed.
If the United States cares about medaling in future Worlds, the NBA season has to be shortened, either at the front end or the back end. That is only one thing that needs to be done out of a dozen or so things, but it's the most important.
There is simply not enough time from the end of the Finals to the start of the Worlds for anyone -- not George Karl, not Larry Brown, not Riles -- to put a plan together for 12 guys who have never played with one another. Two weeks will not make a difference. When U.S. teams comprised college players, they had three months, minimum, to work out. No one expects a three-month commitment from NBA players. But six weeks shouldn't be out of the question. And the only way to assure a six-week window in the offseason is to make the end of the season come when it used to come -- at the beginning of June, not the end.
We are talking one of two things: either a) shortening the preseason from its current seven or eight games to two or three, or b) chopping about 10 to 12 regular-season games from the schedule. Either the regular season stays at its current length but starts in mid-October, or it starts at the end of October as it does now and shrinks to 70 to 72 games. (By the way, I'd pick the former; preseason games in non-NBA cities are a waste of everyone's time and almost always a financial disaster, not to mention a wholly unnecessary additional road trip across the country for many teams.)
The end result is that the season would be over around the first week of June. Now, dates for international play, from the Tournament of the Americas to the Worlds to the Olympics, fluctuate from year to year. Some years, play begins in early July; some years, it's mid-August. (The Sydney Olympics were in September.) So some years, even with a June 1 end of the NBA Finals, you'd only have about a month for practice, and players who went to the Finals wouldn't get any time off at all. But what's to keep the other players already selected from working with the team's alternates until the one or two guys from the Finals can join the team? And in the years when Olympic and World competitions began in August, the league could assist by imposing a two-week moratorium on free agent signings and trades, giving the national team an extra fortnight to practice without having to worry about NBA business.
But only Stern and Hunter could make it happen. Only Stern could convince owners to pare revenues from their coffers in the luxury tax era. Only Hunter could lobby players who gave up 10 percent of their checks last year to give up another chunk of them for a cause most of them will never be asked to join. (Hey, I didn't say it would be easy. But both of them are making pretty good coin for taking on tough tasks like these.)
That isn't the only thing that needs to happen.
We all knew that Yugoslavia, with five NBA players on its roster, was capable of beating the United States. But don't dismiss what Argentina did to the U.S. team Wednesday night as a one-time fluke, or the result of bad officiating, or injury, or some sort of Shroud of Turin miracle. What happened Wednesday will happen again and again in future international competitions unless there is a sea change at all levels of basketball in the United States. I'm not hatin' on anyone in particular. But we Americans have to re-think how we teach basketball, how we play it and how we approach international play. We are basically operating on the same model we did in 1948.
I do still believe that the 12 best NBA players at any point in history, given time to work together, would win gold medals. But only for a little longer. Maybe two, three Olympic or World cycles at the outside. Eventually, if we continue to throw these teams together, even the best NBA players will be beaten. And then what will we say?
What else can we say now, but that our butts have been handed to us, in our country?
The problem is systemic.
By contrast, the Argentine team has played together -- not every day, but for weeks at a time -- over an eight-year period. In addition, many of the team's players grew up with one another. They've been playing with and against each other since they were kids. This year, they practiced for months before coming to the States, and then went twice a day for a week at the Pistons' facility in July before bussing down to Indianapolis. And Magnano is going to spend two more weeks with the Pistons during their training camp to take some of Rick Carlisle's workouts back home with him. (And so that Carlisle can pick Magnano's mind as well.)
There is no national program because there is no budget for one. As sponsorship dollars continue to wane, it will be tremendously difficult for USA Basketball and the NBA to create one. And other factors create problems, too.
"I think it would be difficult to do, with the AAU system and the way the whole thing is structured now," Carlisle said. "It's simply a case of, there's no ideal situation unless you can put together a Dream Team every year of the very, very best players, and then we don't even talk about this."
"The calendar doesn't favor it," said C.M. Newton, the former longtime coach, Kentucky athletic director and president of USA Basketball and current CEO of the World Basketball Championship and member of USA Basketball's senior men's selection committee.
"We did that for our women, and that's becoming increasingly difficult for the women now, because of the WNBA season, and the season in Europe for professional players," Newton said. "I don't think that we would get anybody, particularly out of the NBA, that would be willing to give up playing in the NBA to come and join a national team for an entire year. You wouldn't have anybody from the school and college community that would be willing to do that."
But would you need a year if you had a national coach? A full-time coach could a) have time to scout international teams adequately, on their continents, during their championships; b) be able to put his stamp and philosophy on the program, so everyone knows the style of play he'll want coming in; c) be able to pass his program on to the next coach, so there is continuity from cycle to cycle. This would obviously require hiring someone who isn't a current NBA head coach, who could do it for four to six years at a time.
My choice? Dean Smith. The '76 Olympic coach has the time, he has a system, he has the respect of players from Michael Jordan on down and he has a network of disciples that could succeed him and continue his way of doing things as they retire from NBA and college jobs. For example, Larry Brown isn't likely to stay in pro ball much longer and would be honored beyond words to coach for his country. Waiting in the wings could be guys like Roy Williams, Randy Ayers, Mo Cheeks or Buzz Peterson -- all familiar either directly or through affiliation with members of the Chapel Hill Mafia with the Smith Way. If Dean didn't want to do it, I'd go after Mike Krzyzewski for all the same reasons; under the K Sphere of Influence are talents ranging from Doug Collins to Tommy Amaker.
But the reality is, unless dollars are available to pay a coach and fund the ancillary needs of the program, such an endeavor isn't likely to happen.
But players have to meet USA Basketball halfway. NBA players have demanded less and less practice time in exchange for their participation in international play. That has to change.
"It may sound crazy," Toronto's Antonio Davis said, "but if you get guys to commit four weeks beforehand, so that you can prepare the right way, and do things you have to do, and play enough exhibition games so that you come in here -- you're crisp, you're sharp, and you're ready to go -- then that makes all the difference in the world. I don't think the selection process should change; I just think the preparation should change."
Some players turn down the invites because they say they need time off after what can be a 100-game schedule if they go deep into the playoffs. But the notion that NBA guys work longer hours than their international counterparts is a fiction. Yes, club teams abroad generally play two or three games a week. But once a guy's club season is over abroad, there's the European Championships (or their counterparts, the Central American and Caribbean Games, or the Asian Games), the various club championships, as well as Olympic and Worlds qualifying tournaments when necessary. You add all that up and you're at 70 to 90 games, depending on how far you go, relatively equal to what most NBA players do in a season.
Peja Stojakovic is playing with that same bad ankle he sprained in the Western Conference finals. Pau Gasol is playing for Spain with a bad groin. Yes, they're still relatively young guys, but Vlade Divac dragged his 33-year-old butt out here to play, as did Puerto Rico's 38-year-old Jose Ortiz.
"In the U.S., they consider the NBA Finals to be the World Championships," Stojakovic said. And we do. We think the NBA has the best 29 teams in the world. And under NBA rules, they do. But here? Are you still sure?
"The rest of the world views the Olympic Games as an all-sport, multi-sport even that basketball happens to be a part of," Newton said. "They view this as the world championships. For some reason, we haven't gotten that. We don't understand it. We haven't accepted it ... for example, did Divac and those guys play on their Olympic team? The answer's no. Are they here? The answer's yes."
Said Carlisle: "People have got to understand, any time a team like that plays a United States team, it's a game that means everything. It's a game that these guys have dreamed of playing their whole lives. It has great, great magnitude. And it's a little, it's difficult to bring a group of American players together and make them understand the urgency of that."
Fans here have also been blasť about the Worlds, showing up at the RCA Dome and Conseco Fieldhouse in drips and drabs. (One big reason is the outrageously high ticket prices, set at NBA Finals levels in a blatant money grab for corporate bucks by local fathers trying to make back their investments. So instead of having a sold-out Conseco with real basketball fans at $20 to $40, there was a half-empty Conseco last Wednesday, where a few thousand U.S. fans were easily drowned out by a few hundred throaty Argentine supporters. And Thursday's game with Yugoslavia might as well have been played in Belgrade.)
Several U.S. players admitted this week that they just didn't understand how important this was to the rest of the world.
The problem is not that our kids don't learn it; obviously, Ben Wallace knows how to defend an out-of-bounds play. The problem is that reinforcing those lessons becomes less and less of a priority the closer one's talent gets him to the L. The influence of sneaker companies and their loot on AAU programs has kids learning how to be "pros," not learning how to play. The kid who can break down a defender and elevate gets priority over the less talented but more technically sound player. And that describes most of the Argentine and Yugoslavian players to a T. Some of the young men who defeated the United States this week started learning how to play in bare feet. Their goal wasn't a pro career, but mastering a game that might take them out of abject poverty. While U.S. college players are limited to 20 hours of practice per week, their international counterparts are doing two-a-days, or three-a-days.
In short, they're hungrier than we are right now.
"I think we have good school in Yugoslavia, good coaches," Yugoslavia's Dejan Bodiroga said. "We work hard and we try every day to do better. I think it's, you know, day by day, this difference is small. I think for work and for our philosophy of our school in Yugoslavia, our Yugoslavian school of basketball. In Yugoslavia, I think everybody works two times a day, approximately six hours, three and three. I think young players work very hard ... because they know only one way to come up is to work. To work hard. I think we do the good in Yugoslavia for this."
Said Davis: "Those countries are growing tremendously in a lot of different areas of the game that they haven't been before. They're stronger, they're bigger, they're smarter, and they're learning to play at a young age, and we have to respect that. And our young people today, and our coaches of today, have to go out and teach guys the game of basketball the right way."
We have to find at least a few players who aren't the most talented, but who would accept an invitation as the honor it is and fit into a team concept smoothly and quickly. You can't have 12 role players; two or three would be enough. Call it the Eric Snow Ideal.
And Newton raised Thursday night what others have been suggesting for a few years. "I think one of the issues is to look at the possibility of involving the school and college community players a little bit more in the process, and still have a predominately professional team," he said.
This is the kind of team I'd have in mind for these Worlds, for example: Andre Miller, Eric Snow and Jay Williams at the point; Paul Pierce, Michael Finley and Caron Butler at the two; Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Mike Dunleavy, Jr., at the three; P.J. Brown and Raef LaFrentz (who I might actually play) at the four; Davis and Theo Ratliff at the five. Of course I would ask my Pick Six -- Shaq, Kobe, Tim Duncan, GP, Kevin Garnett and AI -- if they wanted to play, and if I got one or two of them, I'd figure out a way to work them in. But if I didn't get any of them, I wouldn't be paralyzed.
Oh, and I would do one thing the next time around that this selection committee didn't do.
I'd get Chris Webber's phone number, and dial it.
David Aldridge is an NBA reporter for ESPN.