Publish date:


The U.S. can learn a lot from foreign basketball powers

It's going on 20 years since the U.S. lost its first Olympic basketball game, to the Soviet Union in Munich. Yet every time Team USA is defeated in a major international competition, Americans act as if a clock has just struck 13. Even poor Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke coach whose U.S. national team lost to Yugoslavia and the Soviets at the Goodwill Games and came within a second of being beaten by Greece in the opening round of the world championships in Buenos Aires last week, is showing signs of strain. In Seattle, Coach K went back and forth between upbraiding reporters for putting "the whole weight of the nation" on his callow band of college all-stars and appealing to "the whole U.S. to get together to help this team win."

Diagnosis: acute schizophrenia caused by delusions of grandeur. Anyone else bemoaning the U.S.'s relegation to Just Another Basketball Nation is invited to stretch out on the couch for a therapy session. To start, it's O.K. to lose to another country. Some of these foreigners play damn good basketball. Just because the light bulb, say, was invented in America doesn't mean Paris can't be the City of Light. And speaking of light bulbs, keep in mind that old joke about how many therapists it takes to change one. The answer is none. The light bulb can change itself, but it has to want to change.

The U.S. basketball establishment hasn't proved that it really wants to make the requisite changes. Goodwill Games commentator Rick Barry in-cants his mantras, "We have to turn up the defensive intensity" and "We have to execute," as if it were all as simple as throwing a switch. From the domestic coaching fraternity we hear similar chauvinism: that by sending American coaches overseas to do clinics and by condescending to play exhibitions with foreign teams, the U.S. has engineered its own demise. In fact, American college coaches, the men who lead the U.S. into international play, haven't come up with an original thought in years. To basketball people in places like Milan and Belgrade, the typical American college coach is an impossible control freak who first debases himself to recruit top talent and then, to justify his sense of self-importance, refuses to let the youngsters he once flattered run free.

Yes, NBA players will be eligible for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, thus closing the yawning age gap between recent U.S. teams and their international counterparts. But unless a dozen NBA All-Stars sign up—more likely, it will be a mixed bag of NBA players and collegians—the U.S. will still be vulnerable to the elite teams, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

What could Americans learn from the Europeans? Lots, says Dan Peterson, a former coach for the University of Delaware who has coached in Italy for 14 years. They could learn, for instance, that you should expect all your players to master a variety of skills, instead of using specialists who can dribble or rebound and not much else. Or that a coach needn't be a sorcerer on the sideline; it's more important to establish a rotation of eight or nine players from which floor leaders can naturally emerge. Or that you can use videotape to break down your own players' weaknesses, not just to analyze those of an opponent. Or that the heights of players should be listed honestly, lest opponents get a morale boost when they line up for the center jump only to discover that the men they are guarding are shorter than advertised.

Most important, says Peterson, the best foreign teams never have fewer than three three-point shooters on the floor. Since 1987, when Brazil beat the U.S. in the Pan American Games, Americans have watched men named Schmidt and Souza, Kurtinaitis and Khomichus, Kukoc and Zdovc score more points from beyond the three-point stripe than you could score if you had those names in your Scrabble rack. Against such players it's tempting to set up a trap or extend a half-court defense, but most play with teammates who can slash through a wide-open middle for easy shots. The long rebounds that come off three-point shots also make orthodox boxing out difficult. And a zone—the defense John Thompson used in losing to the U.S.S.R. in the 1988 Olympics-becomes a reckless tactic. (Over the first five seasons that the three-pointer has been in effect internationally, no team that relies primarily on a zone has reached the semifinals of the Italian playoffs or the European Cup competition.) "The three, or the threat of it, is just the prow of the ship," says Peterson. "It parts the waters for the vessel following behind." The typical American college coach, alas, would sign a shoe contract with Buster Brown before he'd grant his players license to eye it and fly it.

The U.S. may well come together and win in Argentina this week. But if the young Americans should lose, let there be no handwringing from spoiled and blinkered fans Stateside. Yes, Dr. James Naismith presided over basketball's blessed event on American soil in 1891. But the Good Doctor, need we be reminded, was Canadian.