In my last year at university, I got the name of a European basketball agent who could help me land a job after graduation. He gave me a list of Americans already playing overseas. I called one of them and asked him what it was like playing in Europe. His answer reminded me of John Travolta’s line from Pulp Fiction, about ‘the little differences’. ‘They’ve got the skills and everything,’ he said. ‘But they don’t have that attitude, do you know what I mean? That edge …’
He was talking to the wrong American. I hadn’t played competitively since high school, when I sat on the bench for a team that went to the state semis in Texas. The attitude – or feeling – that dominated my basketball life was deep frustration at the gap between what I wanted to do on the court and what I had actually done. I hoped that a German passport (my mother comes from Schleswig-Holstein) might make it easier for me to play in Europe, where the second division clubs have quotas to limit the number of foreign (mostly American or Russian) players.
That was twenty-five years ago. Since then, the rest of the world has been catching up. After a very young squad of American stars lost (i.e. got a bronze medal) in the men’s tournament at the 2004 Olympics, Team USA put together a run of 25 straight wins and three gold medals. But that streak ended last Sunday, when they blew a seven-point lead against France. Maybe they didn’t have that edge. In the final minutes, Damian Lillard passed up an open three, trying to find a team mate, and turned the ball over. On one possession, they missed five straight shots. You could feel the pressure tell. But you could also sense that the world is not frightened of American basketball any more.
They’ve been blasted in the media at home (Tim Legler on ESPN: ‘Team USA should feel embarrassed’) but the loss was hardly a surprise. They’d already been beaten by Nigeria and Australia in friendlies the previous week. It isn’t always easy to measure the star power of an American squad, because they tend to be a mixed bag of the available and the willing. But this team has a number of genuine superstars in their primes: not only Lillard and Kevin Durant, but two of the heroes of last week’s NBA champions, the Milwaukee Bucks. The consensus has been that if they play according to their talents (and their paycheques), they should win.
So what happened? Some of the obvious explanations are clearly true. The Americans are tired; they’ve been playing basketball for almost two straight years. Because of Covid, the NBA season had a quick turnaround, and some of the players in Tokyo got straight off a flight from the NBA Finals before suiting up the next day. Other countries tend to build up teams from their youth; many of the Americans had never played together before. And it was only one game. They could still go on to win the gold. Last night saw a decisive victory against an overmatched Iranian side.
But there’s more to it than that. The three best players in the NBA this year were all foreign: Serbia’s Nikola Jokić won the regular season’s Most Valuable Player award; Cameroon’s Joel Embiid came second. Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece won the Finals MVP. And the best young player in the league, Slovenia’s Luka Dončić, almost broke the Olympic record with a 48-point debut on Monday against Argentina.
Something has shifted in the seventeen years between Team USA’s last Olympic loss and this one. Part of what’s happened is the rise of analytics, on the back of technology that allows us to track and measure the efficiency of almost every unit of play in an NBA game. The computers don’t measure ‘attitude’ or ‘edge’, which, in the absence of other data, are among the things we used to rely on to assess ability. Now, instead, we’ve got numbers to go by.
But analytics can’t change the fact that basketball teams are social hierarchies, and where you stand in the hierarchy shapes how well you can play. The NBA may be evolving but it is still an American league. And part of what we’re seeing at the Olympics is that foreign role players on NBA teams can, if the hierarchy around them changes, beat NBA stars. France’s leading scorer in Sunday’s game (with 28 points), Evan Fournier, finished the NBA season as perhaps the fourth best player on the Boston Celtics. The Celtics star, Jayson Tatum, scored nine for the Americans.
One of the most dominant performances I’ve ever seen live was Patty Mills playing for Australia in the 2012 Olympics. He owned the court and led the tournament in points per game. Two weeks ago, he was the top scorer in Australia’s warm-up victory against the US. Team USA is coached by Greg Popovich, the same guy who brings Mills off the bench for his NBA club, the San Antonio Spurs.
A player I ended up facing in Germany (when I wasn’t sitting on the bench) turned out to be a pioneer of the foreign invasion of the NBA. Dirk Nowitzki was just eighteen but there were stories going around that George Karl, the coach of the Seattle Supersonics, was trying to recruit him. The Sonics had just lost in the NBA Finals. ‘Call me when you win,’ Nowitzki is supposed to have said. Two years later he joined the NBA, and in 2007 became the second player from outside North America (and the first European) to win the league MVP. If these Olympic Games are anything to go by, more are coming.