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Fundamental differences cost USA basketball team

Column by Rick Chandler, Tribune correspondent

We were going to write this week about Tonya Harding, who announced recently that she wants to try driving in the Winston Cup Series.

She has already picked out her pit crew — I hear Jeff Gillooley is a whiz at removing lug nuts.

But no, my editors are forcing me to write about the United States men’s basketball squad, which recently lost to Spain in the World Championships.



Other losses were to Argentina and Yugoslavia … look, let’s cut to the chase. When you’re defeated in basketball by nations that don’t have Internet access, it’s time to sit back and take stock.

The demise of the U.S. men’s team is no great surprise here in this column, and that’s saying something, because we’re surprised at just about everything*. Our appalling lack of fundamentals have been a harbinger of doom for many years, and the movie “Like Mike” didn’t help. What happened to the good old days, when basketball movies were based in solid reality? Films like “Hoosiers,” and “Son of Flubber?”




It was only 30 years ago that the U.S. men’s team, made up entirely of collegiate players, lost a disputed game to the Soviet Union in the Olympic Finals in Munich. The Americans refused to accept their silver medals, claiming they were robbed of the gold. How good would those neckpieces look right now? The current U.S. team would hitchhike to Germany to pick them up.

Here’s why the U.S. lost:

— Our society wants slam dunks and rap videos, only occasionally glancing down to see if anyone is playing defense. No player in the NBA can go three feet without traveling, which is never called, except in international competition where they frown on that sort of thing. In American basketball, it’s better to look good than to play well. We deserved to lose.

— The rest of the world is catching up. Many nations now have pro leagues, and some even play indoors. Yugoslavia had three NBA players on the floor in the fourth quarter when they beat the U.S.

— No Bobby Knight. Say what you want about him, but he’s the last coach to take a U.S. team of collegians to an international title. He’s the guy who got Charles Barkley to take his first charge — rushing onto the court in practice and drawing a chalk outline around Barkley to mark the occasion. Today, that would take a lot of chalk.

— Our best players weren’t there. Oh, we talk a good game about patriotism, slinging slogans like “United We Stand” and saluting our fallen 9-11 heroes. But when it came down to doing something tangible to honor our nation, like representing it in the sport that we invented, our best NBA players could not be bothered. Shaquille O’Neal will have that toe ready for the Lakers’ season opener, though, don’t you fret.

We here in this column coach a youth basketball team, and we stress fundamentals, which puts us at a decided disadvantage in league play. We only play man-to-man defense, for example. That’s difficult for seventh graders, but it establishes the building blocks for good fundamental play down the road.

Every other team in our league, however, plays zone. Players rush to their end of the court and take their positions, standing stock still, maybe taking a step or two to the left or to the right, daring our team to drive in. Man-to-man is hard, and after all, they want to win. And of course nothing is more important in life to adults than winning a peewee basketball championship.

But that’s the America we live in. The end justifies the means. Just ask Tonya Harding.

OK, here are the new rules concerning basketball (this column has just been named U.S. Basketball Czar).

1. No losing to countries below the equator. If the Falkland Islands War taught us anything, it’s that Argentina can’t plan its way out of a paper sack. They charged the beachhead to take their island back from Britain, and never got past the local penguin population.

2. No losing to countries where they still use pottery for housing shingles. This includes Spain and Greece.

3. Zone defense banned in U.S. from high school on down. If you want your kids to stand around with their arms in the air, let them play volleyball.

4. Referees must wear long pants. This has nothing really to do with the quality of basketball, it’s just something we’d like to see happen. Old guys running in shorts creep us out.

* Marv Albert wears a hairpiece? No way!

— Rick Chandler’s interactive sports column, Capacity Crowd, can be found at

NBCSports.com


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