by Lang Whitaker

My fellow Americans, thank you for joining me and allowing me to interrupt your regularly scheduled programming for tonight’s State Of The Dream Team (sponsored by Nike!) address.

I would like to begin with an admission: This is all our fault.

I know, I know. We are a nation not usually given to acknowledging the errors of our way, but I’ve come to realize that it’s time we change that tendency. Perhaps we went after the Weapons of Mass Destruction too soon. Boycotting the 1980 Olympics ended up not changing anything. And we definitely never should have let George Karl coach the 2002 World Championship team — what a mistake that was!

Anyway, before we move forward we have to look backwards, which is where the admission of fault will come into play. Hopefully you all bought our recent Olympics special issue in which I wrote the cover story on Team USA. In that essay, one of the points I tried to highlight was that maybe the primary reason the US finds itself in this situation — with our pride on the ropes and our backs to the wall — is because of us. Thanks Mike, thanks Magic, thanks Larry.

At the Olympics from 1936 through 1968, the US Men’s Basketball team not only won every gold medal, they didn’t lose a single game. So going into the gold medal game against the Soviet Union at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Team USA was sitting at 63-0. (They then lost that game in one of the more famous screw jobs in sports history.) After the loss, USA Basketball bounced back immediately, winning gold at every Olympics they participated in until the 1988 Games in Seoul. In ’88, coached by John Thompson and with a team led by Dan Majerle, Team USA finished third, losing to the Soviet Union in the semi-finals.

Then came the Dream Team, and the USA had answered back, resoundingly. You think we can’t play ball anymore? Oh, well, forget the college kids and get a load of these cats with their own signature shoes.

And here, I will excerpt myself from our Olympic special issue…

After the Dream Team rambled down Las Ramblas for their gold in ’92, the rest of the world seemed to take Team USA’s dominance as a challenge, as though the gauntlet had been thrown. And almost immediately, the backlash began. In 1994, at the World Championships in Toronto, the US sent a team of lesser lights—still amazing players, but younger guys who weren’t necessarily locks for the Hall of Fame. Trying to emulate the Dream Team’s dominance, dudes like Derrick Coleman and Shawn Kemp caused a stir by dunking without prejudice while grabbing their crotches, leaving with gold medals but tarnishing Team USA’s rep. In 1996, Dream Team II assembled in Atlanta and still won rather easily, behind Hakeem, Pippen, Barkley and The Mailman. Team USA was still on top. They took gold again in Sydney in 2000, narrowly avoiding a loss against Lithuania in the semifinals.

USA Basketball was losing its vise grip on the title of best team in the world, yet nobody seemed to care. After all, Team USA had still taken the gold, and more importantly, Vince Carter had jumped all the way over Freddy Weis for the greatest dunk in history. Maybe Team USA was no longer the superpower it once had been, but did the process matter, or was it only the result we cared about? The truth was, the rest of the world was catching up to the USA. While the NBA had indulged in globalization, exporting its games via satellite TV and the internet, the world market was soaking it in and trading on the lessons learned. Talk to the NBA’s international stars today, from Yao Ming to Dirk Nowitzki, and they’ll all tell you how watching NBA games formed and informed their skill sets. Instead of feeding on moves from second-rate guys from their local club teams, they were learning Dream Shakes and behind-the-back passes. Baseball may be America’s game, but David Stern made sure the NBA was the world’s game.

“I do remember watching Michael Jordan play,” says Denver forward Nenê, who grew up in Sao Carlos, Brazil. “We would go to a friend’s house with more money who had a nice TV and cable, better conditions than I grew up with, and we’d watch him play. I remember being in awe of everything he did. I didn’t get to see too many games or too many players. My friends would ask me if I knew this player or that player or seen that move, and I’d say ‘Yeah, yeah,’ and pretend that I knew so I’d fit in.”

The NBA was cashing in on the exploits of MJ and Magic, but at the same time basically running free basketball camps for players around the world. For years, international basketball had been criticized as being too boring, too fundamental. Now, all of a sudden, every kid around the world who could find a TV was being introduced to the flair and panache that made the NBA so exciting. And those kids took those lessons to heart, blended them with their fundamentally-sound games. Where just a decade before they wanted autographs and photos, now they believed they could not only compete with Team USA, they swore they could win.

So in a way, being that world power in basketball worked against us. We set the benchmark, and by the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis, the world had caught up.

And since then, we’ve been the ones playing catch-up, trying to show everyone that we can not only teach, we also can learn.

But I think Team USA has finally grasped their lesson. Because while guys like Yao and Dirk and Nene and Nash saw Team USA finally get toppled, so did guys like Kobe and Melo and Bron and CP3. They felt the agony of defeat. Now they want to taste the thrill of victory.

That’s right, believe it or not, Team USA is motivated for a change. And I think that motivation is going to be the deciding factor this year between gold and, well, not gold. (Because those are the terms: We win gold or nothing. If they win silver or bronze, no matter how well they play, some chucklehead will go on ESPN and say this is a disaster, blah blah blah.)

I’ve been to all three training camps in Vegas that Team USA has convened the last three summers. I’ve been to their exhibition games, went to the Tournament of the Americas, saw them practice, saw them relax, saw them party, saw them gamble, saw them chill out.

And I saw enough to convince myself that this iteration of Team USA is going to win the gold medal.

Over the next few weeks, you’ll hear a lot of talk about “The Olympic Spirit,” about how the athletes participating in the Olympics are inspired or fired up or driven by this shapeless, formless non-entity.

I’m here to tell you that there is such a thing as The Olympic Spirit. I know because I experienced it myself.

When the Olympics came to Atlanta in 1996, I was fresh out of school and was looking for a job, which really means I was happy to be unemployed for the first time in my life and was planning on spending the summer not looking for a job and instead playing a lot of video games.

A few months before the Olympics began, I heard an ad on the radio that the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) was looking for volunteers. I figured I should sign up, because I didn’t have tickets to any events (because I couldn’t afford tickets to any events) so maybe this way I’d get into some events and I’d get to see a few sports in person.

ACOG had set up this enormous volunteer processing center in what looked to be an abandoned warehouse. I showed up and got in line and eventually got to a table where they assigned people different jobs. I told them I’d do whatever they needed me to do. They asked if I was over 21 (I was) and asked how well I knew the area (like the back of my hand). Then they did a background check which I unbelievably passed. Perfect, they decided: I would be a VIP driver. They outfitted me with a shirt, pants, shoes, an official credential and all sorts of other stuff, then sent me on my way.

A few weeks later the drivers were called into some kind of organizational meeting. We all gathered in some church basement and were told that our job would be to hang around at a downtown hotel, where the Olympic motor pool would be based. Then, whenever a dignitary (could be a politician, could be foreign royalty, whatever) needed a ride to a venue, we’d take them in one of the courtesy cars donated by BMW. We’d then wait around and take the person back to the hotel. Seemed easy enough.

I was supposed to start my job a week before the Olympics actually started, as visitors began to flood into The ATL. That first morning I put on my outfit and called in to a phone hotline they’d set up for the workers, at which point I was told that my services would not be needed on that day. Great! I changed out of my outfit and fired up the Sega Genesis.

Next day, same thing. Day after, same thing. Day after that, same thing again. Around this time a story ran in the AJC about how there were too many volunteers for some jobs. It soon dawned on me that perhaps my services wouldn’t be needed at all. This didn’t hurt my feelings, but it did upset me a bit to realize that I probably wasn’t going to get to see any of the Olympics after all.

A few days later, the weekend of the opening ceremonies, I was hanging out with a group of friends and talking about all this, explaining how disappointed I was that I wasn’t going to see any games, when this girl I kind of tangentially knew said, “Oh, do you need tickets?” Turned out her father was one of the vice presidents of ACOG. “Come by my house tomorrow,” she said. “We’ve got plenty of tickets.”

Next day I was there bright and early, ringing the doorbell of her parent’s house. She invited me in and I followed her into the kitchen, where I discovered her kitchen table completely covered in tickets to Olympic events. There weren’t just 2 or 3 seats to various events, there were at least 6 tickets to every session of every event, and because this guy worked for ACOG, all the seats were in a luxury box at each venue. Seriously.

She yawned and sorta waved her arm toward the table. “Hey, I need to go get ready to leave,” she said. “Just take whatever you want.” And then she left the room.

I turned and gazed over those tickets, my eyes as wide as Robert Traylor. A less scrupulous person probably could have turned an incredibly tidy profit, but I was a sports nerd, actually interested in being at the events. So I started filling my pockets. Every game Dream Team 2 is playing? I’ll take four tickets for each game. Boxing? Baseball (USA vs. Cuba, no less)? Crew? Tennis? Soccer? Ping Pong? Gymnastics (for my Mom and sister)? Volleyball? Swimming? Track and Field?

You name it, I got it. And I spent the next three weeks going to events every day and night, taking my friends along and having the time of our lives. We met Muhammad Ali, we saw the Dream Team take the gold, we saw Michael Johnson and Carl Lewis win gold, saw Kerri Strug land on one foot, saw Jose Contreras pitch for Cuba, saw a dude get knocked the hell out during boxing and saw Floyd Mayweather fight.

At night we went down to Centennial Park, a huge open space in downtown Atlanta where fans from every country hung out and watched the games on big screen TVs. And of all the things I saw and experienced at the Olympics, Centennial Park was my favorite. People just sort of milled around, cheering for various countries, exhibiting national pride, taking photos, experiencing different cultures. If there was an Olympic Spirit, this was it. We all wanted to see what the rest of the world was like, and at the same time show off our own world. Everyone was happy and smiling…it was like living in a Coca-Cola commercial.

(Until one night when we left the park, walked about 15 minutes to a train station that was usually pretty deserted, and then noticed the trains were suddenly unbelievably packed. We walked from station to station but couldn’t get a train, so we ended up having to hike about 10 miles to where we’d parked. This was before cell phones, of course, so when I finally got home hours later, there were dozens of messages on my answering machine asking if I was alright — turned out we’d missed the park bombing by about ten minutes.)

Even after that tragedy, we still went to the Park every night, because even with the pall of sadness hanging over everything, all of us wanted to be together, to indulge in that melting pot as long as we had the chance. To me, that is what the Olympics are all about, and that is what Team USA has gotten away from through the years.

The 2004 Team USA famously isolated themselves from the Olympics by holing up on a boat just outside Athens. This year’s team has already bucked that trend, hanging out for four hours yesterday in the athlete’s village. They’ve spent three years together bonding, while hearing that they aren’t good enough to win the gold, that they’re everything that’s wrong with basketball in America.

Now they’ve got to prove themselves. And they will. Because there’s pride in the equation like never before.

Basketball-wise, I think the main issue they’ll have to overcome is a series of zone defenses that every country, if they’ve watched Team USA play at all, should employ. That 2004 Team — you know, the team where Larry Brown wouldn’t let Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James near the court — had this weird habit of attacking zone defenses by trying to set picks, which, I’m sorry, doesn’t work. Larry Brown just looked confused, mostly, and when he returned from Athens his career careened downhill. So maybe LB just didn’t have the wherewithal to coach international basketball.

I’m hopeful that Coach K does. Thus far he’s stressed teamwork and defense, and for all of Larry Brown’s talk about “playing the right way,” unless you know that ball movement beats a zone, it doesn’t mean squat. Coach K should also be thankful that he had Jerry Colangelo putting this team together; the ’02 team was assembled, no lie, by Stu Jackson. Which explains a lot.

In the run-up to these Olympics, Team USA played a series of games last week against teams that are all pretty good, and they won every one of those games. No, they didn’t win every game by 40 points, but they did win every game, which, last I checked, was the goal.

“It is a different time,” Coach K said at a recent press conference. “We could win on just talent alone at that time in the history of international basketball [the early ‘90s], but those days are gone forever. I think that is great because basketball worldwide is becoming the dominant sport and it will only be that way if we have that level of play. Having the team win in that environment is much more difficult.”

Coach K gets it. Team USA doesn’t have to win every game by 40, they just need to win. But do the players?

I think so, and I think these Olympics could be a breakout for Kobe in particular. We already know he’s arguably the most talented player in the world, but now he’s going to be on the biggest stage of his life, all eyes on he, surrounded by the best teammates he’s ever played with in his life. The last four years have been Kobe’s rehabilitation from Colorado, and this is his chance to paint the whole thing gold.

“It’s representing the country,” Kobe Bryant told me in the fall when I asked why he was so into playing for Team USA. “There’s no greater significance. When you play for your team, you’re playing for a particular market, particular state. You have fans across the country, obviously, but it’s segmented. Playing for the USA team, you’re playing for your country. Whether you’re a Lakers fan or the biggest Celtics fan, it doesn’t really matter. When you put on those stripes, man, it’s time to go to battle.”

It will not be easy, certainly, but Team USA has not only the best single player at nearly every position of any team in the tournament. They’ve got the most successful coach currently working in American basketball today. They’ve got wounded pride, the Olympic spirit, and a stacked roster that’s ready to get it on. Even while I suspected Team USA could win gold in 2004, there was a nagging voice in my head telling me there was no way that collection of guys (Starbury and Richard Jefferson were starters, remember) were going to pull it off.

This year, there’s no such voice. The gold awaits. Can Team USA wrap their hands around it?

I say yes.

And you?