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A Requiem and Hymn for The American Dream Team

Making America the GREATEST Economy Again: How to Lose and Regain American Swag

“My swag was phenomenal.” ―Gilbert Arenas

In the summer of 2004, I witnessed a Greek tragedy unfold before my eyes. Since allowing professionals to participate in the Olympics in 1992, In the tragic summer of 2004, many factors played in the fall of these titans: the lack of ability to adjust to international rules, evolving/improved international opponents, and absence of skill diversification. However, this expose is not a weeping chronicle about the downfall of a sports giant–no. It is a lesson/metaphor/allegory that is eerily similar to the modern state of the U.S. economy. I find this tragedy fascinating because it draws strikingly similar parallels to the legacy of the American economy: world dominance with robust power, role model/inspiration to burgeoning nations/populations, and its consequential (more than likely due to the other two assertions/realities) downfall in prestige. As this basketball story has unfolded, the USBMT has been able to evolve and reestablish its hegemonic position in the basketball world; hopefully, the US economy can learn from the men’s basketball struggle. Hopefully, they can learn from the vital lessons of the depression/shock, systematic introspection, and structural shift of the industry. This is the story of a physical art imitating life, and life perhaps needing to imitate an art.

 

The Rise

“If a team cannot perform with excellence at a moment’s notice, they probably will fail in the long run.” – Mike Krzyzewski

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Total dominance was the name of the game for the 1992 Dream Team.

The underwhelming bronze performance of the USMBT in the Athens 2004 Olympics came as a shock to casual and even diehard sports fans. However, a few insiders saw the play as a dramatic irony.

Since the US allowed professional basketball players to participate in the Olympics in 1992, the only question that lingered among spectators was “Who will get the silver?” The sport that was born in Canada but came of age in the U.S. became our monopoly. Thus, the 1992, 1996, and 2000 Olympic gold medals were a reminder/manifestation of that monopoly. I distinctly recall watching the original 1992 Dream Team in Barcelona play with such strength, finesse, vision, and effortless collaboration; it was a magnum opus every night. Competing at about 60% strength, the Dream Team beat all the competition by an average of 43.8 points (constantly shellacking folks).

But in those beat downs, the 1992 Dream Team instilled fear and fans around the world. This is similar to how the United States’ status as the economic powerhouse from the 70s and through the 90s. Being the economic hegemon inspired and awoke other countries to improve their own economies to compete globally. In this case, the way the Dream Teamers played inspired other international players and attracted young inhabitants around the world to the game of basketball and the NBA. The rapid globalization of basketball led to the infusion of different cultural styles and strategies into the game. Similar to football (i.e. soccer) and baseball, culture influenced the style of their play. While American basketball rested on its laurels of speed, power, and swag as the foundation of its game, the international community (e.g. Spain, Turkey, Serbia, Lithuania, Argentina, and others) improved their game to fit their basketball philosophies and skill sets. The Dream Team of Barcelona set the bar high for the international community, and they rose to the challenge.

 

The Fall

“Once you are labeled ‘the best’ you want to stay up there, and you can’t do it by loafing around.” – Larry Bird

NBA Nationality Chart

The growth in the number of foreign-born players in the NBA is a reflection of the globalization of the sport.

In 1992, after the Dream Team’s exhibition of dominance in the Barcelona Olympics, Croatian NBA star Drazen Petrovic prophetically stated that European basketball could be on par with American talent in “maybe 15-20 years.”  Today, almost a third of NBA players are originally from outside the U.S.

In 2002, reality started to sink in for the US and international basketball worlds: either the international players were getting better, or the US had finally plateaued. The 2002 world cup tournament of basketball, the FIBA World Championship games, resulted in a 6th place finishing for the US team, led by Hall of Famer Reggie Miller and soon to be HOFer Paul Pierce. Needless to say, their performance was an utter failure and disappointment. The team’s head coach, George Karl, summed up the tournament saying, ”I still think we’re the best, the model for the world, but people are catching up. They beat us, and they beat us in our own country. We have to tip our hat to them.”

Maybe Karl underestimated the competition because they surpassed their American counterparts. Moreover, the 6th place showing from a team of professional American basketball players encouraged the international community’s mindset that the Americans were not as invincible as they had been perceived and set the stage for the 2004 Athens coup d’etat.

America is not the greatest economy in the world anymore (according to many international metrics like the World Economic Forum). Major shocks to our economic foundation such as the Great Recession, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and better global competition have weakened our economic standing in the world. Many participants in the American economy rely on old strengths that are obsolete in today’s society. Other countries have caught up to American manufacturing, computer technologies, and a host of other products, services, and skills. However, like the state of basketball, a return to the chalkboard is needed to regain lost territory.

 

The Reflection/Introspection

“Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise.” – Michael Jordan

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According to PISA scores, fundamental academic skills in American students have been declining over the past years.

American basketball post-Athens took a hard look in the mirror.  Coaches from elementary and college levels took note of Team USA’s deficiencies and international players’ strengths.  In response to the collective introspection, a structural change in the coaching of youth basketball transpired.  For example, Fran Fraschilla stated:

“One of the things I loved about the Olympics that could change the face of
grassroots basketball in America is the way our Olympic players — who are some of the best in the world — embraced the fundamentals of the game.

Even major players in the AAU (amateur basketball leagues) field, such as Nike, started focusing on hosting fundamental skills camps instead of holding scrimmage events.  The Olympic team changed its management, vision, and player composition for Team USA basketball and has won gold medals in FIBA tournaments (2010 and 2014) and Olympics (2008,  2012, and 2016).  Since the 1990s, the world of basketball evolved right under the noses of American basketball coaches, players, and fans.  Consequently, many participants in the field took the rights steps to help make American basketball competitors more competitive on the international stage through re-educating and retraining players from the ground up.  U.S. basketball has regained its edge in the sport, but the international competition will never let it rest.

But, remember, I did not write this article to solely talk about basketball.  This story is an allegory for the American economy.  The US economy (industries, workers, products, services, management, fundamentals, etc.) was the absolute powerhouse of the recent past.  Is it like it was in the 1990s? No.  Great, but not the greatest.  Just like the 1992 Dream Team, the once dominant American economy served as the pacesetter for other economies hungry to replicate and/or exceed.  Just like the 90s global basketball revolution, these international economic competitors (i.e. other countries) focused on developing their fundamentals in schools and colleges, found innovative ways to compensate for their deficiencies, and they stayed hungry.

NA-CM607_PISA_9U_20161205213019.jpg

Programme for International Assessment, or PISA, conducts various examinations to students around the world to gauge specific academic skills.

According to the PISA, academic fundamentals (math and reading) for the U.S. continuing to slide.  Currently, the U.S. is ranked 40th and 24th in math and reading, respectively, in the international field of competition.  Moreover, today’s post-Great Recession economy includes a crippling skills gap because there are workers who face structural unemployment (cannot get a job because they lack certain skills) and employers who cannot find workers equipped with the necessary talent.  A source of the problem lies in the fundamental education of today’s students and workers.  But, just like American basketball, the policymakers, workers, students, coaches (i.e. teachers), business leaders and other stakeholders, must take a moment to reflect and accept the facts and realities of today to rebuild for tomorrow.  We cannot delude ourselves into thinking we can turn back the clock to the good ol’ days of American economic dominance just by saying it or by thinking that our strengths from the past will produce the same dominant results.  Some truths are dead and gone – some jobs and job sectors are dead and gone.  We must collectively realize this.  Industrialists like Steve Jobs know that some of those golden jobs of glorious America era “aren’t coming back.”

 

Manufacturing.jpg

The job market has shifted from many sectors, like manufacturing, that used to be at the center of the American workforce. 

The Rebirth

“Push yourself to keep improving, or you’ll stay as close to the bottom as you are to the top.” – John Wooden

Training-Workers.jpg

Re-educating and re-training unemployed workers will be key to help move forward.

America has lost its swagger.  But what makes America great is its resilience.  I am not a betting man, but if I were, I would not bet against America.  Resilience is in our DNA because there have been many dark periods in our history.  What has made, and should continue to make, us special is our ability to bounce back from our failures.  Tragedy to triumph.  However, similar to the U.S. Men’s Basketball team, and many trials of our history, victory are not gifted to the lazy and uncreative.  For our economy to thrive there should be some educational initiatives we must fulfill such as:

  • Re-educating/re-training workers so they may transition to new occupations and to close the skills gap.
  • Retool, reinvigorate, and repopulate the educational profession so that they may efficiently cultivate and support fundamental skills, creativity/innovation, and dreams of our students.
  • Embolden entrepreneurs and small businesses to continue to innovate through grants, competitions, and professional guidance.
  • Intelligently support and encourage businesses and legislative bodies to manifest points one, two, and three.

 

Team America, the game has changed; so we must evolve as well to get that gold.

The ball is in our court.

“Never give up. Failure and rejection are just the first steps to succeeding” – Jim Valvano

 

 

 

One comment on “A Requiem and Hymn for The American Dream Team

  1. Steve
    January 14, 2017

    Thanks for mentioning Canada 😉 even though the game we invented is not ours lol. The Jordan quote is one I need to memorize! I really appreciate the support you offer for your claims, certainly brings validity to the reality of the country’s situation. And I really enjoy your writing style 🙂

    Like

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