As the 2006
world championships begin this week in Japan,
USA Basketball is the Joe Lieberman of the sports world:
defeated and desperate, using every means to claw back toward
relevance. They don't have much to build on: In the 2002 world
championship, the former goliaths of the hoops universe stumbled
to a sixth-place finish. At the 2004 Olympiad in Greece, they
won the bronze medal but suffered more losses than the team had
in its entire Olympic history.
that Jerry Colangelo, managing director of USA Basketball men's
team, and coach Mike Krzyzewski are now pulling out every trick
to turn things around. This year's team is rich in talent with
the potential to win gold, but they're greener than a Minnesota
banana. Featuring young superstars like LeBron James, Dwight Howard
and Dwyane Wade, the starting lineup may end up being on average
younger than 23.
a raw squad, Colangelo and Coach K are understandably striving
to develop team cohesion and unity. But their methods are both
disturbing and worthy of criticism. As Colangelo explained
to Chicago Tribune columnist Sam Smith, "Coach K and I
were having dinner last summer and talking about ways to connect
this team with America. We talked about engaging ourselves (with
the military): 'Can this become their team? America's team?' It
seemed like a natural." The two brought in people like Arizona
Republican Senator John McCain and celebrated soldier Col. Robert
Brown to speak about how, Smith wrote, "the military, like a basketball
team, requires a unified, unselfish approach."
It is not
surprising that Coach K loved the military angle. He's a graduate
of West Point who led the Army squad for five years. And there
is nothing new about coaches using the language of war to inspire
a winning team. But how does "engaging with the military" translate
in these troubled times? It means that Colangelo and Krzyzewski
have brought out soldiers maimed and crippled by the war in Iraq
to inspire their "troops" in high-tops.
This has included Capt. Scott Smiley, who is now blind after a
Mosul suicide car bombing sent shrapnel into his brain, and another,
Sgt. Christian Steele, who had part of his hand blown off. As
Smith wrote, "It was a more than subtle message that playing with
'USA' on your jersey means a lot more than trying to win a medal.
And it seems to have produced the desired effect of breaking down
individual team loyalties and more quickly uniting this American
reportedly, was moved to tears. But there is something unnerving
about these motivational tactics. Etan
Thomas, the power forward/center for the Washington Wizards, saw
the military presentation on NBA TV and knew in his gut that it
was wrong. He said to me, "I don't have a problem with the troops
talking to the players on their own. But for them being brought
in to build a better basketball team just feels wrong. If I was
there, my reaction would have been completely different. The fact
that... Scott Smiley has lost his sight would not have made me
feel patriotic pride. It would have made me feel ashamed, angered
and saddened that this soldier was blinded at the service of a
war we shouldn't have been in in the first place."
To use a
deeply unpopular war from which, according to a recent Zogby poll,
72 percent of troops want to escape, and using the injured for
public relations purposes, feels more like exploitation than motivation,
especially when spearheaded by Jerry Colangelo. Colangelo once
owned part of the NBA's Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks.
Currently, he's chairman and CEO of WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, and
he also has aspirations that extend beyond a gold medal in Beijing
don't have a problem with the
troops talking to the players on
their own. But for them being brought
in to build a better basketball team
just feels wrong. If I was there,
my reaction would have been
completely different. The fact that
Lieut. Scott Smiley has lost his sight
would not have made me feel
patriotic pride. It would have made
me feel ashamed, angered and
saddened that this soldier was blinded
at the service of a war we shouldn't
have been in in the first place."
- Etan Thomas, the
for the Washington Wizards
has been pouring his money into efforts to strengthen ties between
Republican politics and the religious right. He was a deputy chair
of the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign in Arizona, and Colangelo's deep
pockets contributed to what is called the Presidential
Prayer Team, a private evangelical group that claims to
have signed up more than 1 million people to drop to their knees
and pray daily for Bush. During the election summer of 2004, as
Max Blumenthal has reported,
Colangelo bought ads on 1,200 radio stations urging listeners
to pray for the President.
has never been shy about using sports to project his politics.
On April 5, 2003, he designated the Phoenix Suns' contest against
Minnesota Arizona Right-to-Life Day.
Diamondbacks CEO also helped launched a group along with other
baseball executives and ex-players called Battin'
1,000, a national campaign that uses baseball memorabilia
to raise funds for Campus for Life, the largest anti-choice student
network in the country. Battin' 1,000 stands against all abortions,
even in the case of incest or rape. Its motto: "Pro-life - without
exception, without compromise, without apology."
has a fellow political traveler in Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K is
a longtime Republican donor who made waves when he hosted a 2002
fundraiser for North Carolina senatorial candidate Elizabeth Dole
at the university-owned Washington Duke Inn. His group, to the
consternation of many non-Republican faculty and students, was
called "Blue Devils for Dole."
to their politics, Colangelo and Coach K have something else in
common: There is no published evidence that either ever served
in combat. They might have gained a different perspective on the
meaning of sports and war had they actually suffered the pain,
boredom, fear and death of a live battle.
veteran Colangelo and Krzyzewski didn't bring in was Army Specialist
Danielle "D-Smooth" Green, who lost her hand in a grenade attack
on a Baghdad police station. She would have been particularly
appropriate as a motivator for USA Basketball because in college
she was also the starting point guard for Notre Dame. But Green
told reporters from her hospital bed in 2004, "They [the Iraqis]
just don't want us there.... I personally don't think we should
have gone into Iraq. Not the way things have turned out. A lot
more people are going to get hurt, and for what?"
still hasn't been answered. Maybe Colangelo hopes that with all
the exciting basketball to watch, we just won't get around to
book, "What's My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United
States," is now in stores. You can receive his column, Edge of
Sports, every week by emailing edgeofsports-
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