Click here to see the full 2000 Olympic basketball semifinal between the U.S. & Lithuania.
In a recent lecture on "How to Watch the Olympics", writer David Goldblatt mentions that team sports tend to capture the nationalistic imaginations of the world audience more than individual sports (at the 48 minute mark).
I just think with individuals it just doesn't work the same as teams. Obviously there are teams at the Olympics and it's often the team events...It's only really when teams take the field that these things hang around rather than individuals. For example, you know, Americans - Americans want a lot of gold medals. But when it comes to events that the American body politic are still metabolizing, Carl Lewis winning four gold medals is not figuring, right? Greg Louganis winning 17 billion medals in diving, right, is not metabolizing, right?
But the American basketball team - or the ice hockey team that beats the Soviets, right, when they were all amateurs - that is still metabolizing.
Although this is a women's basketball site and I acknowledge the power of the 1996 U.S. women's national team - culturally, politically, and in terms of nationalism - the Olympic moment that most struck me was the basketball game in 2000 after which, "the Dream Team in Sydney struck gold, but not fear into its opponents."
Most of the 2000 Olympics is a blur to me in retrospect because I was up at all hours of the night as a college senior in the eastern time zone contributing to the upkeep of the online presence of a national media outlet. My sports journalism professor, who worked for a major media outlet himself, cautioned us that a career in the sports media was a blessing in that you cover something you love but a curse in that you can lose touch with the very core of what engenders that love: fan passion.
By the end of the experience I fully agreed as I usually had no desire to even hear about the Olympics when I was getting back home at 6 a.m. most mornings.
Nevertheless, when basketball came on, everyone in the war room sort of stopped what we were doing - or at least started doing what we were doing a bit more slowly - to pay attention to what is somewhat informally referred to now as Dream Team IV.
As with each of the previous three Olympics that featured NBA players, a gold medal in men's basketball felt inevitable. It wasn't only that failure wasn't an option as some might have later said for the Redeem Team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics; even with a growing international presence in the NBA, for those of us who still regarded the talent outside the U.S. as vastly inferior to those making millions within our own borders losing was about as likely as a black man becoming president at that time: maybe one day, but absolutely not within our lifetime.
And further reinforcing that feeling was that dominating Olympic basketball was pretty much all I really knew.
I didn't even pick up a basketball in my lifetime until fall of 1988, didn't really fall in love with basketball until the "Bad Boys" won a title led by Isiah Thomas, and didn't attend my first Golden State Warriors game - the beginning of a long and torturous relationship with one of one of the most cursed professional franchises in the U.S. - until 1991. At that time, I had no recollection of the 1988 Olympics but understood that something that happened then led to the U.S. sending NBA players to the Olympics for the first time.
For me and likely most of my college peers, these basketball games were played simply to explore the extent of our collective basketball imaginations and see what would actually happen if you put the best basketball players in the world on one team playing. Like measuring our dominance of the world in terms of points to fuel our naive patriotism.
By the 2000 Olympics, the whole thing had sort of been taken for granted. Warriors coach Don Nelson coached a brash Dream Team II that was widely criticized for winning in a more, "...arrogant fashion than their predecessors by regularly taunting and intimidating their opponents." Dream Team III was fun and featured my favorite one of two players whose jersey I ever owner - Reggie Miller - but the whole thing was starting to get monotonous to some extent while simultaneously being that nationalism-inducing team that would metabolize in even the way in which you watched the NBA and regarded foreign players.
All of that is what made Šarūnas Jasikevičius' shot at the buzzer in the United States' 85-83 semifinal win against Lithuania so memorable.
The shot didn't go down but it didn't really matter - just when we thought just about any group of players wearing a USA jersey could take gold, Jasikevičius' shot was effectively the shot across our bow that told said, "I've got your timing now."
Unfortunately, things only got "worse" from there.
In 2002, with there being no pretense of a "Dream Team", Argentina became the first team ever to defeat a USA Basketball team composed of NBA players. In 2004, the U.S. inexplicably lost to Puerto Rico by 19, right around the time I was traveling through Europe. By that time, simply becoming more aware as an adult, I was well aware of how our assumption of interminable U.S. dominance in Olympic basketball was seen around the world as an extension of the attitudes that informed our international policy and, as such, a harbinger of the fall of a modern "empire".
My German basketball and European travel buddy - fittingly named Dirk - never let me hear the end of this as we watched the disastrous 2002 performance together during his stay in the States.
Your American team is scrap, he'd laugh, relating the team to a car at a junk yard.
All in good fun, sure, but for him simply another example of what he saw all around him.
It would be wrong to say that I was in favor of USA Basketball taking a loss - it was my country's team and I sort of reflexively rooted for them. But the descent from a Dream to nightmare that began with Jasikevičius' shot sort of coincided with the developmental trajectory of my own geopolitical consciousness.
It was a narrative that resonated with me at a particularly naive time in life and in many ways became the lens through which I was able to begin to understand how friends like Dirk might have looked upon our nation and its citizenry.
Near the end of his lecture (around the 70 minute mark), Goldblatt talks about narrative being the thing that really draws us into the Olympic games, of which national narratives are apart. Although in most cases it's narrative pleasure that we seek, stories that resonate with our pre-existing network of intentions and associations, it can be those narratives that cause dissonance and maybe change the way we see the landscape of ourselves within sport that end up being a bit more memorable.
"For me, I like a bit of injustice," said Goldblatt (at about the 73 minute mark). "Not like in the world, but in the fantasy of the football pitch because the flip side of that is that football also makes it possible for the little people occasionally to win in a way that you don't get in a lot of others sports.
"I mean really, manifestly, the worse side can win in football...Bless it - how cool is that?"
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