The aura around USA Basketball has always been a winning one. Even from 2000 to 2008, during an eight year stretch without capturing an international title, Team USA was expected to win every game it played. Every team USA Basketball put together, stacked with superstars or not, was in theory good enough to claim gold. Realizing that a collection of second-tier players could no longer guarantee victory against improving international competition, the “Redeem Team” swaggered into Beijing in the summer of ‘08 to restore that luster, to announce loudly to the puny world that Team USA was back, that the name on the front of the jersey guaranteed victory because the names on the back were unstoppable.
From the very beginning, as Jerry Colangelo, national director of USA Basketball, assembled the team of superstars that would become the Redeem Team, the buzzwords were “consistency” and “commitment.” NBA All-Stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony all promised that they would be leading Team USA into international competitions for years to come. It seemed like playing for our country once again meant something.
What happened? It’s been only two years since the Redeem Team captured gold at the Beijing Olympics, but the faces of USA Basketball have changed completely. A team that was once defined as a collection of superstars is now defined by one—Kevin Durant, who is only 21 years old. The average age of the team is 24; the number of returners from the Redeem Team, zero.
For a team based around “commitment” and “consistency,” that’s an awful lot of quitters. And for some reason, no one, not even Colangelo, dared to call them out. Oh, of course they had their excuses. Kobe Bryant is injured. Anthony got married. James, Wade, and Chris Bosh had to deal with the frenzy of free agency. Dwight Howard needed rest.
The truth is that the Redeem Team ditched Team USA just like James ditched Cleveland. They used the opportunity for publicity and international recognition and left as soon as they had done the bare minimum of what they were expected to do. Yet while Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert had the balls to call James a quitter and a liar, USA Basketball officials were too scared to as much as criticize the superstars for bailing on their commitments. Colangelo had cautioned that missing the World Championships would hurt a player’s chance of playing at the 2012 Olympics, but he backed off that threat as soon as his stars began grumbling. As much as USA Basketball would like to claim control over its team, the fact of the matter is that the players themselves determine the national squad.
Most of the superstars don’t seem worried about their recent absence. But after Kevin Durant and the rest of the new Team USA clinched gold in convincing fashion at this year’s FIBA World Championships, the question is: Do we even need them?
While the supposed “B” team USA sent to the Worlds was not as dominant as the Redeem Team was at the Olympics, they still defeated opponents by an average 25 points. With an average age of 24, the squad is only going to get better. Add two more years of NBA experience for each player, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone challenging them at the 2012 London Olympics.
That’s why in 2012, when Lebron, Carmelo, Wade and Co. come running back to Team USA for another chance to bask in the spotlight of the Olympic games, Colangelo and the rest of USA Basketball should say no. In order to maintain a winning program, those principles of “commitment” and “consistency” have to mean something. As the Redeem Team demonstrated during the summer, to them, those words mean nothing at all.