King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Without Olympic rings, the world championships are just a bunch of guys playing basketball.

Published August 15, 2006 4:00PM (EDT)

So I guess we're supposed to care about the world basketball championships starting in Japan Saturday. Is that the deal? Because I'm trying, but it's just not catching fire with me.

I need to be convinced. Someone has to talk me into caring about thrown-together national teams playing in August for medals that don't have Olympic rings on them.

The highlights are nice. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony dunking on a series of overmatched-looking Lithuanians and Koreans in pre-tournament exhibition games.

Something tells me when the tournament starts it won't be so easy, because international basketball, with its wide lanes and zone defenses, doesn't mesh well with the NBA style of play, which makes it tough on the NBA players, who are all NBA stars precisely because their games mesh so well with the NBA style of play.

There are those among us who consider it some kind of moral failing on the part of Americans in general that our players can't adjust to the way the rest of the world plays, which, because it's the way the rest of the world plays, is somehow morally superior.

It kind of dovetails with the argument that you're a mouth-breathing Neanderthal if you don't get excited by soccer/cycle racing/whatever sport Americans don't care that much about that the person talking happens to really dig. Or something. I have a hard time really focusing on this argument because whenever someone starts to make it I start shooting my gun, driving my SUV and reciting dialog from "Walker, Texas Ranger." Hoowa!

So we Americans struggle in these international competitions, and when that competition is the Olympics, that makes it a lot more interesting than when the U.S. used to roll over the competition like a monster truck.

Monster trucks!

But what's interesting about that is that it's the Olympics, not that it's an international basketball tournament. Because of the alchemy of what we care about, the Olympics are thrilling in a way the exact same competition is not if it's not the Olympics. The difference is the rings.

It's the same thing that makes a match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal a lot more exciting if it happens at Wimbledon than if it happens at Indian Wells, or a Yankees-Dodgers game a lot more interesting at Yankee Stadium in October than in Tampa in March.

In the big picture, sports are important. Anything that can draw crowds of 20,000 or 50,000 or even 100,000 on a regular basis and that gets its own section in every newspaper and several TV networks to itself is pretty important. But individual games are only important to the extent that we collectively buy into the fiction that they're important.

The fact that so many of us care which of two metal rings a ball goes through more times on a given night is significant. It says something about us as a society. But the actual ball going through the actual hoop is just nonsense. All of the meaning comes from us.

We, and by we I mean me, but I don't think I'm off on an island here, don't put much meaning in these international tournaments, except the Olympics.

Four years ago the U.S. basketball team had its hat handed to it in Indianapolis, right here on the home front, and while there was some hand-wringing among the commentariat, there weren't a lot of conversations on this great nation's city bus routes about the U.S. national basketball team until it went to Athens.

I'm ready to be convinced. I realize I only care about the Olympics, as these things go, because the Olympics have been sold to me my whole life. But I'm a happy customer. For whatever reason, the Olympics deliver the goods. I'm riveted every four years. Judging from the TV ratings, Web stats and general buzz, so are a lot of you. The world championships have all the buzz of a Starland Vocal Band reunion.

But if someone can sell me on the world championships maybe I'll come on board. Not that the world basketball championships need me, you understand. I'm just saying.

And here's one argument that won't make the sale: These are the "real" world championships. The rest of the world isn't invited to play in the NBA Finals, so Americans' habit of calling the NBA champion the "world champion" is another sign of our self-absorption and xenophobia.

Well, call me an ugly American -- you can also just call me ugly and/or American separately; I'm modular that way -- but I don't think the Olympic-champion Argentine national team could stay on the court for 12 minutes with the New York Knicks, never mind the Miami Heat.

I might tune in this weekend once the tournament starts. Then again, that Falcons-Packers exhibition game looks pretty intriguing, doesn't it? And I think there's a Starland Vocal Band reunion too.

Previous column: What's the deal with Greg Maddux?

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