Olympic nightmare should wake up Stern

Updated: August 30, 2004, 4:46 PM ET
By Chad Ford | ESPN Insider
David Stern is not a happy man.

Since 1992, once every four years, average Americans (and general sports columnists) begin caring about NBA basketball. The Olympics are (or should that be were?) one of the NBA's most valuable tools to promote the league and its players world wide.

What Americans and the rest of the world saw this year was what most of us hardcore fans saw in 2002 at the World Championships in Indianapolis.

The world hasn't just caught up. The U.S. is now somewhere in its rear-view mirror.

David Stern
Sixth place at the World Championships (an event most national teams rank ahead of the Olympics in prestige.). Third place in the Olympics. These losses aren't flukes. Nor are they evidence of an American apocalypse.

In a world where America-bashing has become an art form -- the ability to roast the NBA along with the rest of America is icing on the cake for most non-U.S. basketball fans and observers.

I've spent a considerable amount of time over the past two and half years watching basketball around the globe. It seems like every friend I've met along the way, whether it be in Africa, the Middle East, South America or Europe, called this weekend to remind of something I already know.

Goliath can be dropped with a bounce pass and wide open jumper.

Most Americans have caught the same fever. Blame the millionaires. The dunks. The cornrows. The high school kids. The college kids. The NBA coaches. The college coaches. Even the AAU coaches. Throw Nike, adidas and Reebok in there for good measure (despite the fact they run more well-coached developmental camps than do the NBA or NCAA).

"The NBA sucks!" I've heard more than one friend tell me this weekend. Of course they say it while wearing an Allen Iverson jersey, Air Jordans on their feet and holding a bottle of LeBron-flavored Powerade.

Everyone is missing the real culprit here in the rush to play Dr. Phil. Meanwhile, the real enemy is slinking away in the shadows.

Blame Argentina. Blame Lithuania. Blame Italy, Puerto Rico and Serbia. They all have conspired for more than a decade to steal the U.S.'s throne. After years of planning, practice and hard work, they've figured out how to get it done.

I traveled to Serbia shortly after the Yugoslavian national team had defeated the U.S. to bring home the gold at the 2002 World Championships. I wanted to understand how such a small, war-torn country kept producing terrific basketball players. Within hours of arriving in the ravaged nation, I knew the team's victory was anything but a fluke.

Remember in the first Rocky, when Apollo Creed's manager is watching TV and catches a local newscast of Rocky Balboa working out in a meat factory? Rocky is using a side of beef as a punching bag. The look on his manager's face when he realizes Rocky doesn't look at the fight as an exhibition match, but as a war, is classic. I must have looked the same way when I walked into that cold gym in Belgrade in December, 2002.

The scene at the gym is reminiscent of anything you'd catch at a playground in New York City. Graffiti litters the walls of the dilapidated gym. Kids shoot baskets outside through hoops with no nets. Metal bars line every window. The gym is surrounded on each side by Belgrade's toughest housing projects. Broken-down cars line the sides of the road. Wary eyes watch our every move as we pull up to the gym.

When we walk in, the room grows unusually quiet. The silence lasts just a moment, but it is palpable. So is the look on many faces. I felt for a minute like we were in Rocky III, walking with Apollo Creed into an inner city gym in Los Angeles and feeling the fighters' pause and fix us with that fierce gaze, just for a few seconds. That's the only way I can describe the scene. It was the eye of the tiger. These kids were hungry. And they immediately recognized that something foreign had intruded on their isolated world.

The play is unbelievable. The kids, all 15, 16 and 17 years old, are huge. There are 6-4 point guards dishing to 6-11 three-men. Seven-footers are jockeying for position in the post. The kids are too big to play there. They look like NBA greats playing on an elementary school gym. None of them is old enough to grow facial hair. All of them have games far beyond what we see from U.S. teenagers.

The trademarks of Yugoslavian basketball were all present, even on the junior team. The kids rarely missed an open jumper, and every player on the court could see the floor and make the correct pass.

At that moment I knew America's loss at the World Championships was not an accident. The U.S. was in trouble.

While someone could write a whole dissertation on what U.S. basketball has done wrong and how it needs to fix the process, that's the least of Stern's worries.

The Olympics come and go once every four years. No one in America cares about the World Championships. America's failure to take home the gold may sting. But the memory of it will quickly fade.

Nationalism and sport don't mix in America the way they do in the rest of the world. We care less. To Americans, the Olympics are a two-week diversion every fourth summer. To much of the rest of the world, they are a defining moment in culture. With all of the terrible economic and political upheaval taking place in Argentina, dual golds in basketball and soccer act as a balm to the pain of every day life.

The NBA, on the other hand, is with us seemingly 24/7. A real possibility exists that the backlash from America's Olympic defeats may come back to bite Stern and the rest of the league in the butt.

Twelve years ago, the Olympics were seen as marketing bonanza for the league. Now Stern & Co. are in damage control.

Some of the NBA's most marketable stars have walked away with chinks in their armor. A hall of fame coach who preached playing the "right way" all the way to an NBA title, looked tired and out of his league. The idea that the NBA champ Pistons are the "world champions" has become downright laughable.

Stern knows he can't get away with doing nothing. Too many people, over the course of the past few weeks, fell in love with the crisp passing, backdoor cuts, sharp shooting and fluid motion that the international game provides. Selling the slow-down, defensive-orientated, dunk-heavy, one-on-one isolation game that the NBA extols will never be tougher.

The rest of the world is catching up with the NBA athletically. As far as fundamentals go, however, America is losing by a mile.

"I do not think that we have a lack of talent," Stern told reporters on Saturday. "On the contrary, we've got to do a better job of teaching our youngsters the basics. This is a shared responsibility between the league, the coaches and the players themselves."

How does the league live up to that responsibility? Insider breaks down a few things the NBA must do to regain American hoops dominance.

Chad Ford

ESPN Senior Writer