Team USA: Cream Buns and Doughnuts and Fruitcake With No Nuts

International competition will always pale in comparison to the NBA, because ultimately it’s still seen as an extension of the Dream Team vs. Team X, even if America has a few more in the loss column than they used to. No reasonable person in the basketball universe would honestly claim that the USA is anything but the greatest basketball nation on the planet, and with that notion comes the understanding that the players from here are the very best. It doesn’t make much of a difference that USA didn’t take gold in ’04, as evidenced by the prevailing post-Olympic question being not “When did this happen?” but “How did this happen?” It was an important moment for international play, but not an important moment for Americans. The only signal sent by that failure was that Team USA needed to treat the Olympics more seriously, not that our country’s dominance in the sport had suddenly come to a close.

Until that happens — until Spain, Argentina, and the like are seen as something more than “challengers” — international competition will be nothing more than a passing fancy in America. The fact that the NBA title is often referred to as the “world championship,” wrong though it may be, is perfectly indicative of the attitudes and opinions regarding the league as we know it: this is the best collection of professional basketball talent in the world, and attaching nationalistic importance to another tournament isn’t going to change that.

Honestly though, that’s not all that concerning. The general consensus regarding the FIBA World Championships or the Olympics doesn’t really concern me, because I enjoy the games all the same. I still get to see a cross-conference All-Star team trot out against some of the top of players in the world. You get to see Chris Paul throw oops to LeBron, Kobe and Wade working on opposite wings, and a frontcourt of Carmelo and Dwight. Barring a serious free agent shake-up, these aren’t pairings you’re likely to see anywhere else on the planet, and unlike an exhibition like the All-Star Game, these competitions do have real winners and real losers. It’s not the same as an NBA title, and I don’t expect it to be. I just want real effort, real defense, and an execution level worthy of the tremendous talent Team USA is putting on the floor.

Maybe there’s a little part of me that enjoys having international basketball as my little secret. Something as big as the Olympics hardly seems like an underground treasure, but staying up until 4 AM to watch Team USA take on Andrei Kirilenko and the Russian national team? Even if I’m connected through my television set to fans around the world, there’s something personal there. Maybe by the time it replays the next day or the die-hards dive in on the DVRs it will belong to everyone else, but for those precious few hours, that game, filled with only the best in the world, is mine. Then, when you try to talk to me about it the next day, I’ll chide you for being behind the times and tell you all about how I discovered that game before it was famous. I thought all I wanted was to have a ‘meaningful’ experience with global bros [via social media], but all I wanted was 2 have some ‘basketball’ 4 myself.

Or really, some brilliantly talented players filling my summer with slightly different but still exciting basketball. That only happens if international competition matters; it doesn’t have to be paramount, but it needs to be an endeavor worthy of these athletes’ time. Prior to the last Olympic games, the thought was that establishing USA Basketball as a commitment-based system, along with the involvement of the most respected names in the NBA, would instill the program with prestige. For a summer, it did. 2010 will be the real test for Jerry Colangelo and USA Basketball, though, as players will still be asked to commit their time and represent their country, but without the glitz and glam of the Olympics. Those events are heavily televised and gigantic marketing opportunities. By Colangelo’s rhetoric, they’re deemed the big prize for commitment to the program. Without that commitment, not only does USA basketball as an institution lose some respectability in being blown off, but it opens the door for more and more off-year drop-outs.

Right now, it’s LeBron and Wade that don’t seem to want to play this summer, and they have their reasons: free agency, other interests, family turmoil. Cool. Jerry says he’s flexibile, and he’s willing to roll with it. That doesn’t mean either Wade or Bron will be in Vegas or Turkey this summer, and the message James sends by telling the world that he’s “busy” is not a positive one. Not because of some contrived nonsense about national pride or somesuch, but because it prevents the best possible basketball from being played this summer and in future summers. Not everyone has the singular focus of Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, two players whom Adrian Wojnarowski claims are committed to playing this year. What happens when Melo decides he needs the summer off? When Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh are too busy? Who will we actually be seeing in July and August?

It’s not that having Durant, Deron Williams, Chris Paul, O.J. Mayo, Brook Lopez, and more would be any kind of tragedy. That’s a team of stars in its own right. But if I’m allowed to be greedy, I want the best. Not the biggest names, but the best players in the world absolutely killing it. Even the televised scrimmages are terrific. While I can hardly blame either LeBron or Wade for wanting to skip out to do whatever it is they intend to do this summer, the butterfly effect it may have on USA Basketball 10 years from now scares me a bit. It’s nothing even close to terrifying; I’d watch USA field a team Antoine Wrights, Sebastian Telfairs, and Craig Smiths and still find joy in it. Just not as much joy as I would watching the cream of the crop.

That’s what we have a chance to see for every other summer from now until USA Basketball disintegrates (the cream of the crop, not Telfair et al), but it depends on the players committing and taking it seriously. If the cool kids are doing it, everyone else will fall in line. That’s why even though Jerry Colangelo is the man in charge, the elite players hold the real power. They put the power behind the product, and they’re the ones that control the future of Team USA.

Seth Carstens