If only everyone could love a World Cup medal the way Kenneth Faried does
Not all marriages are built to last but that doesn’t mean we forget the good times. Emmet Ryan on why basketball and and the Olympics need to change their relationship status
Rio 2016 gets under way today and for all the accurate criticisms of the facilities and infrastructure, they are going to own the media for the next two and a half weeks. Basketball is a part of that but it’s long past time for both sides that they went their separate ways.
The good times
Here’s the thing with relationships, most of them don’t just have good times they have absolutely epic times. Basketball and the Olympics experience that between 1988 and 2004, the golden period for the relationship and it was one that was instigated by change. With the USA only taking bronze in Seoul, the first time a crew of college recruits lost on that stage without any talk of shenanigans, the door was opened to pros in 1992. The Dream Team’s impact on basketball is nothing short of extraordinary, it was the ultimate greatest hits rock and roll album being played by monsters of the game who were mostly in their prime. That legacy reset the bar and showed nations other than the USA what the new target was. Then came Atlanta, where Yugoslavia hung with the USA for most of the game. Sydney, where the USA looked beatable despite the games being best remembered for one dunk, and finally Athens. The games that saw the USA finally get dethroned once more albeit with a roster not close to the best possible although still far stronger than is remembered.
What that narrative misses
Here’s the thing, it’s nowhere near as neat as a once every four year cycle. The strength of USA’s college teams vs the rest of the world without such a restriction was already in question going back to 1972. While that side’s loss in the gold medal game remains one of the most controversial in Olympic history, even granting them the win there it’s still a ludicrously tight game and no-one on that roster disputes that. Two of the three Olympiads in between saw boycotts so the USA wasn’t at Moscow in 1980 while the Eastern Bloc wasn’t in Los Angeles. Given where strength lay in Europe at that stage it’s not a stretch to say the clear battles would be Eastern Bloc in the form of either USSR or Yugoslavia vs the USA. Between those 1972 and 1988 games, there were four world championships (now FIBA World Cup) where the USA won once. Not bad for a team comprised entirely of amateurs but also a sign that it wa about time to let the rest of the world have a crack at the USA’s best.
Likewise in the post 1992 road, the improvements in Europe became apparent fast and weakened, albeit pro, USA teams had failed in the 1998 and 2002 world championships. A failure to collect gold at the Olympics was coming. The subsequent loss by a stronger USA team to Greece in the 2006 world championship showed that, yes, other countries could potentially challenge the USA at its best.
Redeeming the USA and relegating the Olympics
The Redeem Team was great for the US program because it got the one thing it really needed, a legitimate test. Here was the best possible side the USA could put on the floor and Spain scared the hell out of them in the Olympic gold medal game. As a single game of basketball, it was fantastic to watch. As individual moments Argentina in 2004, Greece in 2006, and, even in defeat, Spain in 2008 made their mark.
Therein lies the problem. It’s not even about winning the whole thing, it’s about beating the USA. Here are the old masters and all-encompassing monsters of the sport. They are the best. Beating them is the biggest thing, except as it turns out for beating the best possible version of them. The cycle between the Olympics, Team USA, and the very concept of what international basketball is supposed to be gets into a violent mess that doesn’t know what it is and certainly isn’t at the heart of what the Olympics are about.
It’s not good for the Olympics
Ask a volleyball player, a sprinter, a handballer, a swimmer, an archer, a shooter, a triathlete etc what the biggest goal is in their sport and there is no debate. It’s an Olympic gold. Even with ice hockey at the winter games, while there’s no doubt with North Americans that a Stanley Cup matters more there are European pros who will argue otherwise.
That simply isn’t the case in basketball. You can certainly argue that it was for a time, particularly during the cold war and in that golden period of the marriage but for all the money basketball makes the Olympics in its current form it doesn’t do the Olympic movement any real good in the long term to have it on the program as it is. It dilutes the achievement of those for whom the Olympics are the ultimate goal.
That’s not to detract from the players who want to be at the Olympics. They have been driven from when they started playing to believe that in a certain form of their sport this was the big prize but when a NBA championship ring is unquestionably the biggest prize, a gold medal shouldn’t have to play second fiddle. Nobody leaves baby in the corner. Whatever you think of the IOC, for the athletes there shouldn’t be different views of a gold medal. That includes men’s soccer whose abomination of a competition is the greatest insult to what the Olympics are supposed to be (beyond all the corruption, drugs scandals, flagrant other forms of cheating/criminality).
It’s also not good for FIBA or the NBA
It’s no secret that FIBA wants its baby, the world cup, to be the big time tournament in international basketball. That makes sense, even ice hockey realises it gains more from trying to keep its top team tournament under its vague auspices. The problem for FIBA and the NBA is they want to keep a toe in, with some ugly Under 22 style tournament replacing the current form if a change does happen. In a shock to roughly no-one the collective response of players has been cold.
Players have been programmed to see Olympic gold as the ultimate goal in international play, a FIBA tournament is just a route to the Olympics. As long as basketball is at the Olympics, everybody is stuck in this ugly mess. Instead the cut needs to be clear.
There’s no doubt this one will be hard to get over with players in the NBA, guys I totally get it, but look at the equivalent for soccer players. That’s the best analogy here because like that sport you know this medal isn’t the biggest prize in the sport.
Of course there is another way
Removing the best of the best from the Olympics will suck for the short term but will, down the road,be for the betterment of the sport. It puts every international set up one the same rough track in terms of priorities. It gives the USA reason to actually care about the FIBA Americas Championship, with tournaments going to a four year cycle, at some point in the distant future whereas now it’s just the booby prize if they fail to win the World Cup. It also gives the USA reason to want to care about the World Cup with that prize the big one for Team USA to focus on long-term, without the distraction of other sports during the Olympic cycle.
That’s the appeal for the NBA as well, if it’s going to sell its wares to a global audience having an event controlled by basketball makes far more long-term commercial sense than the Olympic shimozzle.
Commercially, the IOC would actually benefit long-term if it went back to focusing on being a pure best of the best competition. It has always been sold on that, this is the facet that gets its marquee sports of swimming and athletics over with the global audience. That is going to require something radical.
Time to go long
While not close to the same match for ratings, not even a blip, in terms of fit 3×3 makes far more sense as a partnership with FIBA going forward as that’s a sport where Olympic gold would be, from day one, the clear top honour. Admittedly, using the marriage analogy, this sounds like going to wild and wacky extremes in order to stay friends after the break up but hear me out.
This has already worked for amateur boxing, which despite its own governing body’s best efforts by trying to bring pros in, has been able to use the Olympics to carve its own identity as a sport separate from the pro game. Before a ball is thrown or kicked, it’s already clear that Rugby 7s rates Olympic gold over its own World Cup. Likewise if Futsal replaced football, it immediately becomes the top honour.
All of these are versions of sports that hold far less public appeal individually than the big boy versions but it’s about looking at the Olympics as one whole. Assuming a basketball fan who tunes in to USA vs France who won’t watch 3×3 won’t watch the Olympics at all is more than a reach. That fan may be more inclined to watch basketball than other Olympic sports under the current format but there’s a good chance they will watch something else. Overall viewer numbers would take a slight hit in the short term but would likely restore to normal down the line and increase in ad value, as the hardcore fans of these replacement sports coupled with national centric audiences (eg Kenya for 7s rugby) become more active viewers.
This is some crazy long-term economics so I don’t want to get too bogged down but the short version is that in the long-term, basketball as we know it leaving the Olympics would have minimal risk for the IOC or FIBA/NBA while holding massive potential gains for all three. Also, the implications of the move would be a whole lot less predictable than the actual tournament, that’s the kind of shake-up everybody needs.