LITTLE ROCK — Orchestrated by coach Mike Krzyzewski, with the cooperation of Kobe Bryant and a dozen unknown athletes from a small European country northeast of Poland, it sure felt like there was a conspiracy afoot in London.
After the U.S. basketball team beat Nigeria by EIGHTY-THREE and prior to the five-point victory over Lithuania, there was a column in the works about the lack of competition for the collection of NBA All-Stars. The idea was to support NBA Commissioner David Stern’s proposal to impose a 23-year-old age limit on Olympic basketball players in the name of viewer interest.
Not that there wasn’t some suspense vs. Nigeria. With the U.S. leading by 33, we waited breathlessly to see if Bryant or LeBron James would remove their warmups in the second half. Exhale. They did not.
If Coach K is absolved of his role in the scare vs. Lithuania, blame Bryant’s 1-of-7 from the field, the team’s 10-of-33 from three-point range, and the fact that the only two Lithuanian players who shot poorly only attempted four shots. The other no-names made 37-of-61. No matter the talent gap, a basketball team that shoots lights out will be in the game to the end.
Leading up to the games in London, the most debated basketball question was whether Bryant, James, Kevin Durant, and their teammates could beat the Michael Jordan-led team of 1992. Who knows? But, at least people cared enough to take sides.
Has any fan of the red, white, and blue honestly sweated a single outcome in London? Oh, there was one story that suggested the U.S.’s opening round game against France would be a test. After all, the author said, France’s roster included Ronny Turiaf, Boris Diaw, Nicolas Batum, Kevin Seraphin and Nando de Colo — all currently on NBA rosters. I’ll have to take the writer’s word on that.
Names on the U.S. roster are a tad more familiar. The final was 98-71. A few days later, the U.S. beat Spain by 22 in a rematch of the 2008 gold medal game.
On Monday, Argentina was promoted as the only team with two victories over the U.S. in the last 20 years. Not enamored with the U.S.’s opposition, a Wall Street Journal blogger noted that Argentina started the second quarter with (Carlos) “Delfino as the only name recognizable in the northern hemisphere.”
A one-point game at the half, the U.S. won by 29. Durant scored 17 in the third quarter when the U.S. rang up 42 in 10 minutes. That’s what this team is supposed to do to the opposition. A country with only slightly more than 1,000 millionaires, Lithuania could recruit some tall and talented new citizens with a $230 million budget — the amount the 12 players on the U.S. roster earned during the last 12 months.
The suspense quotient is about equal when the U.S. basketball team is on the floor and the Chinese divers are poised to plunge.
Earlier this year, Stern proposed that basketball use the same rule as Olympic soccer — that a team be allowed three players who exceed the age limit of 23. So what if the U.S. team lost Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams, Tyson Chandler, and Andre Iguodala? This year, those eligible would include five on the roster, plus Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, Andrew Bynum, Kyrie Irving, Mike Conley Jr., John Wall and others. That does not include those in waiting, obliged to do one year of college. Throw in Bryant, James, and Chris Paul and Krzyzewski could cobble together a pretty decent team.
Stern is out to protect his assets in a league driven by stars; I’m on his side in hopes Olympic basketball will be competitive enough to watch.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.