Front and center of tomorrow's society – learn smarter, teach harder
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. workforce. I find this tragedy fascinating because it draws strikingly similar parallels to the legacy of the American workforce: 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. While the industrialists, like the owners and technocrats of the NBA have been flourishing as the league has spread its presence around the world, the homegrown talent has languished. As this basketball story has unfolded, the US Basketball Men’s National Team (USBMNT) has been able to evolve and reestablish its hegemonic position in the basketball world; hopefully, U.S. workers 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 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.
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.
The United States of America is desperately holding on to the “greatest economy in the world” title but many nations are on the rise to take the throne. 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.
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.
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.”
Currently, the corporations, just like the team owners of the NBA, are and will be financially fine. They have a wide world to market their products/services and the same wide world to select various talents. As for the American players and workers, a new game plan must emerge before we are submerged.
The American workforce 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 in our history, victory is not gifted to the lazy and uncreative. For our economy to thrive there should be some educational initiatives we must fulfill such as:
Team American Workers, the game has changed; so we must evolve as well to get that gold.
The ball is in our court.