U.S. Basketball Team Fares Well on Global Court

Alexander Wolff, senior writer at Sports Illustrated talks with Robert Siegel about the U.S. National Basketball Team's performance at the FIBA Americas Championship and about how our national basketball teams tend to perform in international play.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

We tend to take note of international basketball tournaments when the American team, invariably compared to the 1992 Dream Team that included Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, there's something nightmarish like a lose to Argentina. So let the record show that the USA team that plays Argentina tonight in Las Vegas has won six straight games in this year's FIBA Americas Championship, and their average margin of victory is 40 points.

Alexander Wolff has been following international basketball for several years and he joins us from the studios of Middlebury College in Vermont. Welcome back.

Mr. ALEXANDER WOLFF (Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated): Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: So, is the answer - just to make up a team of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and some other real NBA All Stars, and then make Duke's Mike Krzyzewski the coach in Team USA - a win?

Mr. WOLFF: Well, that's actually been tried earlier in this decade and not to the greatest of effect. So, I think what we're running into again in tonight's game will be a terrific example of a system in Argentina and the super players in the U.S.

Now, yes, steps have been taken at the highest levels of USA basketball to try to bring a little more system and structure to things. But, in the end, international national teams tend to have just more order, and we tend to play a little more from the id.

SIEGEL: What's a system when you're talking about, say, Argentine basketball?

Mr. WOLFF: Well, very specifically, the Argentines who beat the U.S. in Indianapolis in the World's in 2002, in Indiana of all sacred places in the U.S., it is a vertically integrated basketball system that brings players in as 14, 15, 16-year-olds of cadets, and then national juniors, and then senior nationals. So they're playing under the same coach or coaching philosophy.

So, the players who'll be suiting up for Argentina tonight, even though it doesn't include some of their most well known players who played in the NBA, are people who are pretty much on the same page, know each others rules and cuts and moves, and are, therefore, a much more cohesive unit than, inevitably, a team of U.S. NBA All Stars that's drawn together.

SIEGEL: But if they do well against the U.S., they will be the only team in this tournament, in this hemisphere, it seems, who can do well against the U.S.?

Mr. WOLFF: Well, Brazil has its moments. Puerto Rico has beaten the U.S. recently in top international competition. So that's not quite true. But certainly at this competition, the U.S. is really flexing its muscles. The real reckoning for the Americans is going to come, not necessarily at this tournament, but down the road. Now, if they don't finish in the top two here, they'll have another chance to qualify for the Olympics. And then in the Olympics themselves, they'll have to reckon with a lot of those very, very strong and deep European teams.

SIEGEL: Who are the strong and deep European teams?

Mr. WOLFF: Well, perennially, it would be Serbia. They're the most fearless team. Always has a few NBA players, crafty veteran players. And - but even the Spaniards and the Italians and the Russians and - it seems like in the last eight, nine years, at least a dozen different national teams have beaten teams of American pros. And if you think back to '92 in Barcelona, it seemed like a total pipedream that this could ever happen. So, whatever has led to this, it's certainly given us this full flowering of basketball all over the world. And I don't think that's been a bad thing for, certainly, the NBA game, which has benefited from the style, which has arrived at - on our shores in the pro game.

SIEGEL: One interpretation to what's happening is that an American missionary activity, spreading basketball around the world, has succeeded so marvelously that all of those converts are just doing brilliantly at it out there.

Mr. WOLFF: The Dream Team's exhibition - it wasn't a competition, it was an exhibition in '92 in Barcelona - really did do what David Stern and Boris Stancovic said it was going to do. Nobody believed it at that time, but it inspired an entire generation of people to be like Mike and Larry and Magic. And we're seeing it everywhere. And China is probably the best example of it. A nation of 1.3, four, five billion people there. Eventually, you're going to find some talent that can be developed and tapped, and we're seeing that backwash now in the NBA, in the draft. And obviously, at the NBA corporate offices in New York, they're counting money as a result of this.

The NBA is looking at a market that's extending and expanding.

SIEGEL: Alexander Wolff, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. WOLFF: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Alexander Wolff is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and he is also the owner, president and general manager of the Vermont Frost Heaves - champions of the American Basketball Association.

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