Where have you gone, Allen Iverson?

The U.S. men's return to basketball dominance is a lot less interesting than those fascinating days of dysfunction in Athens.

Published August 18, 2008 6:05PM (EDT)

I miss the bad U.S. men's basketball team.

The Americans stormed through pool play and appear to be a lock for the gold medal, just like in the old days.

Not the old days of Larry Brown and poor roster construction and not understanding the international game and supposedly representing everything wrong about American culture.

Not that, but the old days when the Americans never lost a game, when we'd send a team of NCAA All-Stars over to beat up on a bunch of Europeans and South Americans who looked like their squads had been formed at a YMCA, plus the Red Army contingent, who had to cheat to get one win one time.

Those were not interesting days, Olympic basketball-wise. They were followed by some interesting American basketball failure, the response to which was the 1992 Dream Team, which steamrolled the world in not very interesting fashion, unless you enjoy watching Charles Barkley beating up skinny Angolans.

But, Dream Team fans insist, that team planted the seeds of NBA interest worldwide, with the resulting harvest of high-quality non-U.S. national teams led by the likes of international NBA stars like Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki and Manu Ginobili.

Aside to regular readers: Germany will never win a gold medal as long as Dirk Nowitzki is its go-to guy.

I enjoyed the drama of the United States faltering at one of its signature national games. I don't mean that in a self-loathing, guilty liberal, we Yanks are responsible for all the ills of the world so it's deliciously wonderful to see us get our well-deserved comeuppance in basketball kind of way. Wasn't it me telling you four years ago that Guantánamo wasn't your fault, to go ahead and root for the red, white and blue?

What I mean is the American men's basketball failure was a fascinating soap opera. It was a Rorschach test for America. In 2004, we had kind of a hangover from the patriotic orgy that followed 9/11. We were in the middle of a vicious presidential campaign season. It was just dawning on a whole lot of us that the war on terror was a phantom, that Iraq -- more than a year after "Mission Accomplished" -- was a quagmire.

We Americans told online pollsters that we were rooting in large numbers for our squads to lose. We deserved to be punished, to get ours.

The men's basketball team, a thrown-together second- or third-team All-Star squad -- remember that many top players begged off because of security concerns -- struggled in pre-Olympics exhibitions and kept struggling when the tournament started. Because they were the most famous American Olympians, the most famously failing American Olympians and, not incidentally, a bunch of black men, they became the exemplars for the ugly American. Arrogant. Boorish. Bullying.

The real criticism, of course, was that they didn't win. The personality of the 2008 team isn't that much different from the personality of the 2004 team. It's just a better team.

The shorthand for the insalubrity of the '04 team has become "the Allen Iverson team," but all Allen Iverson did was play hard and play hurt. If the '04 team had been any good, and maybe if Allen Iverson hadn't been named Allen Iverson, he would have been a hero. The 2004 team got roasted for not staying in the Olympic Village, the arrogant jerks. The 2008 team isn't staying in the Olympic Village. The comment from an outraged America:


The arguments were always silly. The idea that the failure of the U.S. basketball team said anything about the U.S., that it represented our national smugness or complacency, for example, was preposterous. It was like saying the San Francisco Giants are terrible because San Francisco has too many gay marriages. Sometimes a bad team is just a bad team. Almost always, in fact.

The idea that the NBA had ceded world basketball primacy was even more absurd. Manu Ginobili, the Olympic superstar who led Argentina to the gold medal in 2004, was a role player with the San Antonio Spurs. A good one, but a role player.

Still, it was fun to have those arguments. A lot more fun than a 106-57 stomping of Germany.

Olympic basketball-wise, those were interesting times. Without meaning this to be anti-American in any way -- go, LeBron James! -- may we live in them again someday.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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