If you’re anything like me, you’ve reacted to the recent stumbles by USA Basketball’s National Team with a certain amount of incredulity.
Losses to Nigeria and Australia? With a team led by Kevin Durant and coached by Gregg Popovich? Preposterous. Shameful, even.
I had one friend laugh about the defeats, almost in delight. Now, this is a God-fearing American dude who loves his country just as much as you and me. When I quizzed him why he reacted as he did, he expressed that he didn’t like the entitlement displayed by Team USA.
If anything, our nation’s universal disgust over these surprising losses reveals our own sense of entitlement. Meaning, all of America. You, me, and your neighbor, too.
As Americans, we know we’re “entitled” to certain unalienable rights — life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. We might as well throw winning in there, too. We expect to fall out of bed and win. Our collective attitude was probably best expressed by NASCAR legend Ricky Bobby in a famous post-race interview.
“Well, Dick, here’s the deal: I’m the best there is, plain and simple. I wake up in the morning and I piss excellence. Nobody can hang with my stuff. I’m just a big, hairy, American winning machine.”
That may seem exaggerated, but such chest-thumping bravado is the American Way. It’s how we approach most sports. But especially basketball — a sport that, by gum, we invented! (Technically, Jimmy Naismith was Canadian, but let’s not sweat the details.)
America has long dominated the sport of basketball at the international level, especially at the Olympics. The United States has won 15 of the 19 Olympic tournaments in history, and one of those misses only came about due to an American boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. We vividly recall the other losses even more so than we do the wins — the controversial win by the Russians in ’72, the slip-up in ’88 that greased the wheels for NBA players to take part, and the 2004 embarrassment that fueled the “Redeem Team” of 2008.
We express angst and disgust over the losses, and yawn through the wins. In most sports, Americans expect their athletes to just show up and win. When someone like a Michael Phelps or a Simone Biles or, of course, the U.S. men’s basketball team wins gold, we think, “Yeah, that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
And that line of thinking is understandable. Phelps could fund the country’s stimulus checks with his collection of gold. Biles has images of goats stitched into her leotards and we don’t even bat an eye, because she’s clearly the Greatest of All-Time when it comes to women’s gymnastics. As for America’s NBA stars, they were 54-2 in international friendlies prior to last week’s losses to the Nigerians and Australians. They’ve dominated so much over the years that the only way we register a reaction is when they don’t.
Is that fair? Not really. Winning isn’t nearly as easy as the Americans have made it look over the years. In basketball, the rest of the world has caught up to the point where it’ll never been a guaranteed gold for Team USA anymore.
As American sports fans, our sense of entitlement creates a layer of undue pressure for our athletes. When your wins are viewed as inevitabilities you’re definitely caught in a non-win situation.
Popovich, for one, seems to be bristling back against that pressure. When asked by a reporter after one recent exhibition loss why his team was struggling in games that past U.S. teams had dominated, Pop popped off.
“You assume things that are not true,” said Popovich, who served as an assistant coach under George Karl for the 2004 bronze medal U.S. team. “You have just mentioned blowing these teams out. That’s never happened.”
But it did. Pop must have a selective memory. The last two times the Americans played Nigeria before this year, Team USA won by 44 and 83 points, respectively.
Such lopsided outcomes helped the Americans build a sheen of invincibility. When you’re winning games by 40, 50 and 60 points (or more), you tend to expect to win them all that way. So, when you don’t, it’s viewed as a national tragedy.
Or they’re looked at as aberrations. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. Even after Team USA’s display of embarrassing exhibitionism, it’s hard for me to imagine them finishing anywhere but the top of the medal stand. You’ve got to figure a team that contains Durant, Green, Damian Lillard and Jayson Tatum, plus guys like Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton who will join their ranks after the NBA Finals are completed, will figure things out.
But there’s that entitlement creeping in again. We get swept up in the sheer talent. And the most talented team doesn’t always win.
So, as the Olympics arrive this week, I’m going to try to resist the urge to expect the Americans to win everything. Join me, won’t you? If Biles claims another Olympic all-around title, don’t dismiss it as just another day at the office. If Popovich and the American hoopers grab gold, let’s admire and applaud their fortitude against an increasingly feisty group of world challengers.
Look, I know. It goes against our inner nature as Americans. We’re used to being the big, hairy winning machine. We’re not underdogs, we’re the big dogs. We run this mother.
Unless we’re playing in the World Cup, of course.