The United States of America has always excelled at basketball, much like we’ve always excelled at every sport that we invented. Most of that success is down to the lack of adoption by other countries. The American version of football doesn’t register on the global scale. Baseball took quite a while, and when the world caught on, we weren’t peerless any longer. The same is/was true about basketball.
On September 12, Team USA lost to Serbia in the consolation rounds of the 2019 FIBA World Cup - their second straight loss in the tournament. Not only did Team USA’s dominance not continue ad infinitum, they wouldn’t even medal. It’s not surprising, really. The United States didn’t field any of the oh, I dunno, 50 best players in the country? No LeBron James, no James Harden, no Steph Curry, no Draymond Green, no Damian Lillard, no Russell Westbrook, no Jimmy Butler, no Kevin Durant, no Kyrie Irving, no Paul George, no Kawhi Leonard, no Anthony Davis, hell, De’Aaron Fox even bounced on this squad.
The most interesting takeaway is that in some ways, this is about social commentary and the state of things in the United States as a whole as much as it is about sport. There are parallels and lessons to be learned, things to unpack, that tell us something, or at least mirror and bring to the forefront, some of the societal analog that Team USA represents.
Sport carries a lot of relationships with life and society. It’s a break, a dissociation, an opportunity to be beside yourself with unbridled enthusiasm, freed from the fetters of reality. It’s entertainment via incredible human performance that soars high above the drudgery of emails and workplace drama and debt.
The United States has always enjoyed a place at or near the top in sport, sliding in right next it the economic military positions it has also enjoyed since becoming a bigger part of the world when it stepped into World War II and led the initiative to rebuild the Western World. The United States was in a unique position to both lead and prosper - unscathed by war on our own shores, possessor of the biggest intact industrial and military complexes, finally ready to emerge from their isolated shell.
For as long as memory and a Google search serves, Team USA has also prospered. Always the best at the sport we created, developed, and led. Just like every economic and military action, we led the way and everyone else tagged along. The USA wasn’t always right, but too strong to be wrong. So dominant that the last time they lost a single game in a major tournament was 13 years earlier, the last time they lost after a stretch of shaky international showings, post-Dream Team and Dream Team 2.
While sport allows us to take a step outside the more mundane human experience, it also mirrors it. If you’re young enough, you have no idea about or even care in the slightest about the Cold War between Russia and the United States. Indeed, as the most elder of millennial, I was alive when the Cold War ended, but was young enough that remembering literally anything from that time is impossible. Growing up in a world where the anti-Russian sentiment was more celebratory, including when the Berlin Wall finally fell, the animosity was in dissipation, but not completely gone. The ending of the Cold War saw a slightly more amicable tone. A moment when George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev were household names.
I’m not a total history buff, so I don’t want to stray too far into debatable territory, but to jump forward, the decision by the United States to assemble the Dream Team for Team USA was both overkill and a showing of strength. The United States flexed its sporting muscle and Michael Jordan became a global sensation that to this day still generates billions of dollars of revenue annually for a United States-based merchandising giant. Hence, not only did the US dominate sport and headlines and the adoration of the world, it was a catapult for United States sporting companies that toppled the market and drove intense amount of commerce through the United States, pushing brands based in other parts of the world to the margins.
Basketball was becoming big business and the world had already taken notice, but the beatdown put on by Team USA was overkill. They won their eight games in the 1992 Olympics by an average of 43.8 points behind the dominance of all-time greats Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and a half-dozen of the greatest to do it. Following a rough 1991 when US GDP was -0.1%, 1992 marked the first of nine consecutive years when the GDP of the United States never dipped below 2.7% and was mostly above 4% annually. A gold medal for Team USA and a GDP of 3.5% in 1992. It was also the year of the presidential election that gave us an ever controversial, but extremely popular President Bill Clinton, who despite his questionable status many years later, served two terms during great economic prosperity where China had not yet asserted itself on the global stage and Russia was in full-on rebuild mode and not the tech-espionage power of the modern day.
Like all other things, we become bored with success. It’s the most human characteristic, the Hedonic Treadmill that you learn about in college sociology courses. After become the dominant, unquestionable power, the only option is regression on some level, even if only because of boredom. Humans didn’t survive because of the times of plenty, they survived because of their hunter-gatherer skills.
Just like in real life, winning all the time in sports gets boring, that’s why it is both so incredibly difficult and rare. There was no direct correlation between the United States economy or social climate and the success of its men’s basketball program, but it still serves a very specific purpose - to distract and to elevate, to extricate us from the hardships and experiences of normalcy.
That’s why it is so crushing when Team USA fails. You’re bored and don’t even tune in to whatever product ESPN tries to blackmail you to purchase at risk of not being able to watch the paramount of basketball competition. You’re not engaged, but you expect greatness. There’s something you could unpack even in that, but we’re here for a different story, a different narrative.
Truly, if the hypothesis is that Team USA reflects the economy of the United States or vice versa, it has failed. Growth is slower and the US is no longer the only global power, indeed they’re maybe just among the three main competitors. No, Team USA has accidentally become simply a painful reminder of the tarnished United States excellence.
Instead of the relief, albeit boring relief, that typically comes from the holiday that is viewing sport, we’re plunged back into a reality where we know the United States can be better, both on the global and economic stages of reality and the sporting world stage. There is no country as dominant when playing hoops. If LeBron James, Steph Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, and a half-dozen others were on this roster, everyone would be buried. Hopefully, when the Olympics roll around this time next year, all of those players are wearing Team USA jerseys.
For now, we don’t get the holiday we hoped for. Instead, we’re living in the reality where the rich are getting richer, the poor aren’t being elevated, and the leadership of the United States has diminished our standings in the world. For the first time since the end of World War II, allies of the United States have started to pause and even break with the United States. The US has been tarnished due to inflammatory foreign policy, among myriad other happenings over recent years.
The 2019 FIBA World Cup has been a bitter disappointment for Team USA. Now, they will turn their attention to the 2020 Olympics, which also happens to be another election year. And with uncertainty in global markets including banking and markets in Germany, the United States, and China, 2020 could bear out another recession, or it could be a year of continued growth. Either way, it’s on Team USA to put their best roster forward and give us all something to watch and cheer for and suspend reality for just a few days. We’ll have to wait and see how the rest turns out.