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Hickok SportsThoughts

Sports historian and author Ralph Hickok of www.hickoksports.com sometimes meanders on about current happenings in sports and sometimes looks back in languor.

Monday, May 09, 2005

The More Things Change, the Less They Remain the Same

USA Basketball's decision to put Jerry Colangelo in charge of choosing the men's national team underlines how rapidly the state of international basketball has changed.
From 1936 through 1968, the Olympic gold medal was a slam dunk for the United States, to coin a cliche.
It was a pretty simple process during those years. The Amateur Athletic Union and then the Amateur Basketball Association of the United States simply picked a team of college all-stars, gave them a few days of practice, wound them up, and shipped them off the Olympics, where they always won all of their games.
Until 1972. With a little help from the officials, the Soviet Union ended the U. S. 63-game winning streak and won the gold medal at Munich.
That wasn't the end of the world, of course. The United States won gold medals again in 1976 and 1984, sandwiching the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
But the Soviets struck again in 1988, relegating the Americans to bronze medal status by beating them in the semi-finals. No help from the officials this time, and no fluke, either. The Soviet Union led virtually all the way and kept beating back U. S. challenges to pull out the 82-76 win.
Less than a year later, the International Amateur Basketball Federation decided to admit NBA players into the Olympics.
That wasn't a dirty capitalist plot to put the U. S. back on the top step of the podium, by the way. The vote was 56-13, and the United States cast one of the 13 Nay votes.
So why did all those other countries want NBA players in the Olympics?
There were several reasons. Some nations, most notably Yugoslavia, knew that they'd have some players in the NBA within a fairly short time, and they wanted to be able to use those players in the Olympics when the time came.
Others felt that NBA stars would enhance the television appeal of international basketball. And there were undoubtedly countries that voted for the proposal simply because the United States was against it.
We all know about Dream Team I, of course. They breezed through the 1992 Olympics, winning by an average margin of 43.75 points. That number was brought up over and over to show how dominant the team was.
Here's another number: 53.5. That was the average margin of victory for the 1956 Olympic team, a group of college all-stars led by Bill Russell.
Think about it for a moment. Even though scores were lower, the U. S. won by a bigger average margin in 1956. In fact, that team outscored its opponents 793-365, a factor of 2.17 to 1. Dream Team I outscored the opposition 938-588, a factor of "only" 1.60 to 1.
Based on those stats, it looks as if the rest of the world gained on the United States between 1956 and 1992, especially considering that the 1956 players were amateurs. Imagine what the scores would have been like if Bob Cousy, Bob Pettit, Neil Johnston, Larry Foust, Dolph Schayes, and a few other NBA stars had been allowed to play for the U. S.
The rest of the world has kept on gaining. The average margin of victory went down to 31.7 in 1996, 21.6 in 2000, and 4.6 in 2004, when the United States lost two games for the first time in history.
There were NBA players on eight of the 12 Olympic teams in 2004, but it's hard to find any correlation between the number of NBA players and how a team finished. Gold medalist Argentina had three while silver medalist Italy didn't have any. Lithuania, which lost to the U. S. in the bronze medal game, had just one NBA player. Greece, with no NBA players, finished fifth, ahead of Puerto Rico, which had three.
Serbia-Montenegro had four NBA players, more than any team except the United States, and they finished 11th, ahead of just one country, Angola.
No one could have predicted in 1992 that participation by NBA players would be irrelevant to Olympic basketball results by 2004. But it does look that way.
It will be interesting to see what kind of team Colangelo puts together. He says he wants players to make a lengthy commitment to the national team, leading up to the 2006 world championships and the 2008 Olympics. That makes sense, in theory at least. But where are those players going to come from? Few, if any, NBA players will make that kind of commitment. In fact, it's hard to imagine many college players doing it.
But there are a lot of Americans playing overseas. Anthony Parker, for example, who was recently named MVP of the Euroleague. He never quite made it in the NBA. Neither did Marcus Brown, who finished third in the Euroleague MVP voting.
Parker, Brown, and others like them are not only very good basketball players, they know the international rules and style of play. And they might welcome a chance to represent their country in the world championships and the Olympics.