With just over five minutes left in the game on Saturday, Lithuanian power forward Paulius Jankunas scored inside to give his team an 84-82 lead over the United States. This wasn’t supposed to be happening. The U.S. team, whose Olympic basketball roster boasts a combined seven NBA championships, four MVP awards and 43 All-Star game appearances, had entered the game as a 34 ½-point favorite, fresh off a record-shattering 83-point dismantling of Nigeria.
The suddenly real possibility of an epic upset got my juices flowing, and I posted this message on Twitter: “There’s nothing more American than pulling for the underdog. Go Lithuania!”
Within a few minutes, two things happened: 1) LeBron and Team USA woke up and reeled off 17 of the next 23 points, grabbing control and averting a humbling defeat; and 2) outraged responses to my tweet began tricking in, with messages like: “Wow. U suck. Plz self deport.” And: “Revoke your US citizenship dumbass.”
OK, so I was kind of asking for it. Just about every American is firmly behind the U.S. team, and I obviously get why. They’re our boys, wearing our colors and representing our flag, and we should be proud of their success. Plus, this year’s squad, unlike at least one previous Dream Team, is a generally likable bunch that plays well together. When they’re really on, it’s about as close to team basketball perfection as you’ll ever see.
But my heart just won’t buy in. Neither the tribal tug nor awe of elite talent is any match for what really draws me to sports: an addiction to the Cinderella story.
People tend to tune in to an athletic event when their favorite team or athlete is playing or, failing that, when it features marquee talent — a Kobe-LeBron showdown, an all-No. 1-seed Final Four, Federer and Nadal in a Grand Slam final, and so on. That just doesn’t do it for me, though. It’s the possibility of an upset – and the joy that comes with one – that I crave.
Maybe it’s because I watched “Hoosiers” so much as a kid. The state of Indiana used to stage one of the most democratic sporting events in the world – a single-class basketball tournament that gave every school in the state, no matter how tiny, the theoretical power to go out and earn the title “state champion.” The movie is based on the most famous Cinderella run in the tournament’s history, when 161-student Milan High School beat out 751 others to claim the 1954 title.
Sure, there was Hollywood packaging at work, but the movie launched me on what has been a lifelong pursuit of real-life “Hoosiers” drama. Utterly improbable stories of teams like the 1991 Minnesota North Stars and the 2006 George Mason basketball squad and moments like T.J. Sorrentine’s 28-foot miracle inspire and sustain me. Upsets are good for the soul, an antidote to the cynicism that living in a world of expected outcomes breeds. In that fleeting moment when the Lithuanians pulled ahead, I felt the same rush of excitement I did watching “Hoosiers” as a kid – a sudden, temporary belief that anything is possible. Maybe it’s just an illusion, but even if it is, so what?
For me, at least, the desire to see David slay Goliath trumps parochial interests. I grew up in Massachusetts, where supporting the Boston teams is part of the civic religion. That was easy enough when the Patriots were dreadful and the Red Sox were haunted by the Curse of the Bambino, and it was a blast to watch each franchise finally overcome its historical demons. But now that they’re giants in their respective sports, my loyalties have migrated elsewhere.
It also trumps personal bonds. I was once in a relationship with a North Carolina grad who was annoyed that I wouldn’t jump on his school’s basketball bandwagon. But the only UNC game that ever did anything for me came back in 1999, when a one-night wonder named Harold Arceneaux poured in 36 points to lift little Weber State to a shocking first round tournament upset of the mighty Tar Heels.
As a general rule, I want and like to cheer for my country in international competition. Sometimes, it comes naturally. Soccer, for instance, is the world’s game, and competing is a serious challenge for the United States. So Landon Donovan’s last-second goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup ranks right up there with my favorite sports memories. And the legend of the 1980 Miracle on Ice never seems to get old.
When it comes to Olympic basketball, though, we’re Goliath. That doesn’t mean I wish ill on the U.S. team or that I’ll be upset if (or more accurately, when) they win the Gold. But it won’t be the medal ceremony that I’ll remember when I look back on the London games. It will be that fearless and unheralded group of Lithuanians playing their hearts out and giving one of the best teams ever assembled the scare of its life.