How To Make It As Americans, Vol. 9

by Jake Appleman/@JakeAppleman

Seven games in eight nights. Coming back to the gym at 1 p.m. after leaving at 10 the previous night. Playing for a consolation prize.

For the second straight Albert Schweitzer Tournament bronze medal game, the United States turned in a subpar performance and ended their two weeks of duty without a medal. This wasn’t quite the egg laid by the injury-stricken team of ’08, but there aren’t many positives to take away from the showing either. The U.S. fought back from an early deficit to hang close until the beginning of the second quarter, when Germany’s U-17 team–a squad preparing for the World Championships in Hamburg–built a bulge back that would never be truly be challenged for the rest of the afternoon.

This was the only time when Team USA played with the daylight beaming in through the windows, and the game felt like stumbling outside of the club in to tomorrow with a pounding hangover. My senses didn’t want it, and if I was only there to write about it, I can’t imagine what the kids felt like, having already known they came up short of their goal. Instead, I’ll pass along some words from others, a few video treats and some final talking points.

First, we should salute the champions, Australia, whose clinical deconstruction of Germany in the second half of the final was a sight to behold; team basketball at its best on the amateur level. Jackson Aldridge, Hugh Greenwood, Mitchell Creek and co. truly know one another as well as they know themselves.

Here is a video of them spitting gibberish before one of the tournament games. I asked Australian commenter Hursty to decipher it, and he came away mostly confused. I think one of the words is “chimichanga”; maybe they found some Mexican restaurant in Mannheim or Frankfurt before the game that we weren’t aware of.

And here’s Coach Krystkowiak, after the bronze medal loss:

“This is coming from the heart, so just hear me out…You guys, under the circumstances, did as well as we can do. And you understand the lesson about it being a fine line. Every game that we lost; the Australia game, tied up [late]. The reporter said, ‘What happenedKevin Ware in that game?’ I said, ‘Nothing happened.’ It’s like a game of one-on-one. Kevin [Ware], if you and I are playing one-on-one, somebody has to win or there’s no reason to play. Now, if I happen to score, it doesn’t mean he did anything wrong. That’s why you have competition: somebody has to win. Last night, the reporters asked me the same thing: ‘what did you guys do wrong?’ I said, ‘give me a stat sheet. Okay, we both shot the ball horribly, from two and from three. Rebounds are identical, turnovers identical. Assists? Identical.’ Everything was identical right down the stat sheet. And it came down to one possession at the end of the game, but we come up on the short end…All those errors that we made are because we didn’t have time to work on things that we’re trying to work on on the fly. Not to mention a crowd [so loud] that you can’t hear what I’m saying, and even if you can sometimes, you don’t even know what it is that I’m saying because we haven’t been together often enough. We don’t get a medal to go home with, but this is a memory that’s never going to leave me. And I plan on following each one of you, 12 right on down the line. I spoke with Royce [Woolridge] about it last night; this is all part of growing up. And I hope each and every one of you–wherever you end up in school–succeeds. And I would love to stay in touch…I’m always in your corner and if you ever get down and out and you need another opinion about something, I’d love to hear from you. That would make my day. That’s why I got involved with this whole thing to begin with. It has been rewarding and [nobody] will never take away the fact that you put a United States uniform on. Ever. Nobody can take that away from you.”

The amazing thing to me is how much the kids actually did sponge up during this short period of time. And I have two major points to make because this is my second go-round spending my day-to-day around an NBA coach.

1) Watching Krystkowiak and Willard design the Xs and Os, it made much of what sportswriters/bloggers care about today seem trivial. Whether it’s the statistical revolution that has value, but is overly inflated because it’s the new big thing, or the passing off of knowledge of NBA salaries as something worth having expertise on when you’re not even paid to do so; it just feels hollow compared to watching an NBA coach teach a group of 16-year-olds a 40 series. Sure, you should reference how much a guy makes when evaluating whether or not he’s a good fit, but indexing the amount of money the eighth man on a non-contender earns, when it’s not even the team you root for or write about, seems pointless. You might as well while away your days trying to stump the Schwab. Because all of us who write about the game do it because we fell in the love with the game first…right? The exuberant kid in the backyard lofting jumpers until the sun went down or the silent killer taking it strong to the rack on the city’s most reputable slab of 94-foot concrete. This is where we come from, right? I returned stateside, resumed my reading and I was just…confused. Is falling love with the spectacle of the NBA that much different from falling in love with the actual game of basketball? Definitely something worth pondering.

Think of a classical music concert. Lovers of classical music can attend a concert and know the way something should sound, but only a pianist or an extremely learned and accomplished scholar of classical music can tell you when the guy at the keys missed a C sharp in the eighth measure coming out of a legato. It’s amazing how many people, in this analogy, would tell you Mozart was slow in legato when they can barely read the music. There are different layers to these things and they should be respected. If that means restraining from calling Jeff Van Gundy an idiot because you can’t step back and recognize that the network is paying him to appeal to the lesser-informed masses that don’t pretend to be experts, please, by all means, spare us.

2) The NCAA, high schools and THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (FEDERAL) seriously need to rethink how they’re doing things. Every one of the kids on this team showed impressed me with their intelligence at some point or another during my week in Germany. They absorbed a lot more information than the ’08 kids got from current Grizzlies Coach Lionel Hollins, and they did so with such class and resolve, I couldn’t believe this was a team comprised more of juniors than seniors. Now, if any one of them—and I’m not banking on it, but you never know with high school athlete coddling these days—fails to qualify academically for an NCAA outfit, it will be an absolute injustice. Because basketball—and sport—is a type of intelligence. Team USA learned and implemented more on the court in two weeks than I did in three years of high school basketball. Yet, I’m the one with the Grade A education from the impressive college and their peers are often the ones who struggle gaining entrance in to the schools that covet them.

Why not give natural athletes the structure and resources they crave? Not an inconsistent potpourri of Oak Hills, Findlay Preps, underfunded public high schools and boosters, but a Bradenton in every single state. Heck, a nationwide high school tournament between every state’s 12 best players. New Jersey vs. New York at Madison Square Garden? I’d watch. I think twenty or thirty years down the line, the average person would be amazed at how much of an impact a Federal, job-providing initiative could have on this country and its citizens.

Because, for the second straight tournament, the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) proved how valuable regimented structure, day in and day out, can be for amateur athletes. And if you think I’m just another random pundit spewing unnecessary morality, think about guys like Eddie Griffin, Lenny Cooke and Leon Smith for a second. Or you could just listen to George Washington. “Nothing can be more hurtful to the service, than the neglect of discipline; for that discipline, more than numbers, gives one army the superiority over another.”

You can only fall through the cracks if the road isn’t paved.

Now that you’re completely weighed down with all that philosophical heft that has very little to do with the actual tournament I spent a week covering—I know, I know, you’re welcome—here’s a video of team captain Royce Woolridge talking about the Albert Schweitzer experience at 6 a.m. in the Frankfurt airport. His unexpected guest is pretty funny, too.

Thanks to everyone involved for an experience that, incredibly, managed to exceed expectations.

Goodbyes are unnecessary because you’ll be watching many of these kids in the NCAA tournament in 1-2 year’s time and, if any NBA teams with coaching vacancies have any sense, Krystkowiak with a clipboard in his hands next season.

See you in two years, Germany.