Posted: August 1, 2012 by terryvandrovec in Uncategorized
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I won’t get much sleep tonight. I’ll stay up later than planned, watching the replay of an odd-duck event that originally aired in tape-delayed format. That’s been the case each of the last five nights and will continue for 10-12 more. The Olympics are that captivating.

I love the already popular sports (soccer), the traditional Olympic sports (gymnastics) and the novelty sports (water polo … except for the underwater cam; proof that there is such a thing as too much TV coverage).

But only one sport’s schedule has earned entry into my iPhone calendar: Men’s basketball. Love it. Even watched the exhibition games. I was 13 when the Dream Team took Barcelona by storm, reclaimed the honor of American hoops and started a worldwide basketball movement. That’s part of why I’m so into it: The history and the smaller margin for error.

However, watching Team USA is a complicated thing for an NBA fan. That is, I see players differently when they are wearing red, white and blue instead of, say, purple and gold. I’ve never been overly fond of Kobe Bryant (even when he had the Cosmo Kramer ‘do going on) and grew to downright dislike him in the wake of the rape accusations in Colorado and his mercurial treatment of teammates. But when he’s reppin’ America? I not only like him, I view him as a team player, a veteran and a leader.

NBA stars seem to carry themselves differently when reppin’ the Stars and Stripes.

That, on its own makes no sense. It’s (sort of) akin to suddenly liking a cereal in light of a packaging change. It’s still the same product – what’s changed is my perception of it.

Or is there more to it?

I’ll contend – without ever having seen this or any Team USA squad compete in person, mind you – that the players change or at least act differently when donning an American uniform. Suddenly, they seem aware  that they are representing their country, that they are ambassadors for the nation that has allowed them to make incredible amounts of money, to change the lives of their loved ones for generations (provided they don’t go all Antoine Walker with their resources).

A couple examples from the first two games of pool play: The team lined up after thumping France to hug the First Lady, one by one. As a friend pointed out via Twitter, it was respectful and counter to the time when a couple of gold-medal winning beach volleyball players – Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Misti May-Treanor – tried to teach Pres. G.W. Bush how to slap a butt during a  celebration at the White House.
Then, after hammering Tunisia on Tuesday, Bryant happily autographed the shoe of an opponent in the handshake line. What’s more, he seemed genuinely gracious about it, a way in which the sometimes robotic former prodigy is rarely described.

The attitudinal shift carries over to the court, too. Guys pass to the point of overpassing, a sign of respect for the skills of their teammates. They defend (most of the time). They rarely glare at opponents, preen or show-up teammates. They appear to go out of their way to support and/or teach Anthony Davis, a professional rookie and the lone pup on the squad. In other words, they behave the way that so many NBA critics would prefer them to.

Why so reverent? A variety of reasons, probably. Patriotism. The global health of the game (and therefore their livelihoods). Respect for their accomplished teammates. The desires of USA Basketball. The military background of Coach K. Their own internal makeup. The impact of a few.

To be clear, we have little to no idea what these guys are like behind closed doors when with their NBA club or the national team. But they seem to understand the national pride that goes into the Games and are determined to conduct themselves accordingly. (Conduct themselves accordingly? When did I turn into a middle school principal? Good grief.)

Of course, there’s nothing preventing them from carrying themselves with class all the time. And, arguably, some of them do. Kevin Durant, for one, has done nothing in his young career to sully his image on or off the court. But maybe we’re standing in the way of that, too. Once the stars and stripes come off, they’ll be divided across the country much like our basketball loyalties.
The basketball portion of the Games wouldn’t be as glorious if it didn’t work that way.


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