x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

US basketball's 'B-Team' showed world class

Basketball superstars chose not to play for the US - and their country did just fine without them. Mike Tierney reports.

Kevin Durant, right, celebrates with Andre Iguodala after the US team won the FIBA World Championship final match against Turkey.
Kevin Durant, right, celebrates with Andre Iguodala after the US team won the FIBA World Championship final match against Turkey.

If a tree falls in the sports forest and no American hears it, does it make a sound? Yes, in the case of the FIBA World Championship. Though few in America were listening (or watching), the United States stated loud and clear in Istanbul that it still holds the patent on the glorious game of basketball. The Americans basted Turkey 81-64 on Sunday while muzzling the hostile home crowd, thus completing two unbeaten weeks with an assortment of mostly NBA understudies. Aside from one transcendent star, this cast resembled the old Olympic squads culled from college campuses as much as it did the more recent Dream and Redeem teams. Half of the dozen players at Mike Krzykewski's disposal were 22 or younger.

LeBron James begged out; after all, he must still be scouring South Beach for digs big enough to house himself and his ego. Dwyane Wade was no doubt busy chauffeuring his pal around. Kobe Bryant surely stayed home to admire himself in the mirror. Nearly every NBA luminary found excuses, many of them lame, to avoid representing their nation. Injuries that afflicted second-tier players further drained the selection pool, resulting in a vertically challenged roster with one post man (Tyson Chandler), plus just two power forwards (Kevin Love and Danny Granger) whose contributions were confined to enthusiastic cheerleading on the bench. In college, they would be called walk-ons.

During the USA's training camp, coaches had to adjust playing philosophy on the fly, ultimately relying on a guard-heavy line-up that passed generously, shot an inordinate amount of threes and defended like the dickens. You almost expected Chauncey Billups, Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose to slap the floor with both hands to charge themselves up for some stifling defence. It was inevitable that, following the Dream (1992 Olympics and '94 World Championships) and Redeem (2008 Olympics) versions, this bunch would be labelled the B-Team. These boys of summer have only eight NBA All-Star appearances among them, the same amount Bryant himself had amassed by the '08 Games.

Do you think Krzykewski might have mentioned the B-Team tag as a motivator? The country of basketball's birth had last won the quadrennial Worlds in 1994, an embarrassing drought with plenty of blame to go around. The endless NBA seasons. Free agency. Player selfishness, between the lines and outside them. Not that America much cared. By early September, the noise from professional and college football openers, baseball pennant races and the US Open tennis has drowned out the Worlds, even when they took place in Indianapolis eight years ago.

Overnight ratings from major television markets indicate that barely more than a half-million US television sets were tuned in to Sunday's mid-day finale. An evening NFL game, the Dallas Cowboys versus the Washington Redskins, captured an audience about 50 times larger. Not one of the 30-something televisions in my NFL-centric sports cafe showed basketball. A patron's request to sacrifice one screen for the game was met with looks as if he had asked to watch the national spelling championship.

Speaking of which, you could spell the Americans' on-court conduct c-l-a-s-s-y, a departure from occasionally boorish behaviour exhibited by their predecessors. There was some chest-pounding, but no taunting the other guys or railing against the officials. The USA's Kevin Durant did more chest-pounding - his own - than a CPR instructor. A total of 101 points scored over the past three games would explain the bruises on his torso.

Durant is suddenly breathing the rarefied air shared in NBA seasons just past by James and Bryant, and nobody else. Too bad Durant's breakout went largely unnoticed. Too bad a basketball team whose whole was greater than the sum of its parts lured few witnesses from their homeland. Good that, on an anniversary weekend when Americans were feeling especially patriotic, a band of young millionaires took seriously their duty as athletic emissaries and brought home the gold.

Good for the US for reclaiming the No 1 spot from Argentina in FIBA's world rankings, while nailing down the first automatic berth in the 2012 Olympics. So, thank you, LeBron, D-Wade, Kobe and the other summertime slackers who made way for Durant and some NBA's lesser lights. With slap-the-floor defence and me-second teamwork, the template has been established for future US teams wading into international waters.

Players who cannot see that, well, they cannot see the forest for the trees. sports@thenational.ae