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ATHENS 2004 | J.A. ADANDE

Don't Just Slam the Players

August 20, 2004|J.A. ADANDE

So after all of the moaning and wailing about the sorry state of fundamentals in American men's basketball, we can fully expect to see a mad rush to WNBA games when the women's league resumes in September, right?

Because we crave the team concept, we want to see the game the way Naismith planned it. Isn't that the case?

Of course not. And that's where the hypocrisy kicks in.

As the men's national team stumbles through the Olympics, sports fans are firing away at anyone they can locate in the crosshairs to dispense blame for this squad's inability to shoot, its befuddlement in the face of a zone and lack of team defense. They want to blame USA Basketball, David Stern and the NBA, the 12 players who signed up for this team, the dozen players who didn't join the team, AAU coaches, shoe companies, faulty pre-war intelligence, anything and everyone except those who truly bear responsibility.

That would be you and me.

By watching, attending or even just tolerating NBA basketball, Americans give it their stamp of approval. The league might not hold the same fascination it did in the late 1980s, but it still drew 20.2 million fans last year. The average is up about 2,000 a game from 1988-89 -- you know, back when the league was good. Yes, the arenas are larger, but the bigger they build them the more people fill them.

People decry the emphasis on stars. Magic vs. Bird. Magic vs. Jordan. LeBron vs. Carmelo. Kobe vs. Shaq (Even when they were on the same team).

People say they hate the egos and attitudes of the modern-day players.

The numbers say something else.

When stoic Tim Duncan and the businesslike San Antonio Spurs turn up in the NBA Finals, viewers grab the remote and look elsewhere. When the Lakers and their armada of bickering superstars made it back to the finals this year, the last game against the Detroit Pistons more than doubled the ratings from the finale of the Spurs and New Jersey Nets the year before.

We want stars. We want individuals with flavor.

Give us the razzle-dazzle.

Meanwhile the slower, lower-flying, lower-scoring women's game toils away from prime time, on the inside pages. Too boring, we say.

Sometimes, winning basketball is boring. Just like football teams that win with defense and running, and baseball teams that win with pitching.

The problem is, when the Olympics opened the doors to NBA players, we were spoiled from the outset. We'll never see another team like the 1992 Dream Team, with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and Co. demonstrating their mastery of the game.

Only four years later, we already seemed tired of the concept, yawning away while the '96 crew won by an average of 32 points a game.

The women were much more enjoyable to watch. They had been together for 10 months, playing 52 games around the world. They were a real team, playing with a grander mission, hoping to build momentum for the WNBA and ABL women's leagues that were gearing up.

Their male counterparts enjoyed going out to the women's games. Once, after Scottie Pippen had grabbed a seat in the media section, I asked him what he liked about the women's team.

"They're so fundamentally sound," he said.

So were the '92 Dream Team stars. But somehow the generation that followed them missed out on those skills. They wanted to dunk like Jordan and throw no-look passes like Magic without mastering the basics first. That's because we as a culture didn't celebrate the free-throw percentages or defensive stance.

Jordan and Johnson developed and extended their shooting ranges throughout their careers. They were always adding to their games. That's because they were so competitive. And maybe because they didn't have so much money thrown at them so early. Jordan had to wait until 1996 -- 12 years after he was drafted -- to become the highest-paid player in the league. LeBron James had a $95-million shoe deal before he tried on a Cleveland Cavalier jersey.

That's the game these days. So why hate the players? The current 12 guys in the USA uniforms are getting trashed. People say they can't stand them. Some of the same critics who questioned the absent players' patriotism for staying home are now admitting that they're rooting for this group to lose. Isn't rooting against your country a form of sports treason?

I know most of the players on the team. They're generally a good group of guys. But perhaps they're best exemplified by Lamar Odom, who continuously blew (or rather, smoked away) great opportunities with the Clippers, then could be so charming you wanted to buy him an ice cream cone.

They can't make an outside shot. Haven't stopped anybody from scoring inside or outside. But if they somehow win a gold medal, we'll let them back into the country, right?

Because they're distinctly American, for better or for worse.

We all want to drive the fancy sports cars and the deluxe SUVs, and nobody stops to think about the gas mileage.

That's the attitude that brought us here, to this team. Without a doubt, made in the USA.

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Adande go to latimes.com/adande.

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