We were willing to accept his tall tales until he started telling us about European basketball.
He told us all about the supposed best player in the world—Toni Kukoc—and how the EuroLeague was stocked with teams that could dust any NBA team.
We outright rejected the notion that any NBA of our teams would be threatened by a lowly squad like ASK Riga. Moreover, with Euro-star Drazen Petrovic languishing on the Trailblazers’ bench and Arvydis Sabonis still a pipe dream based on a few grainy videos, there was no reason at all to think that any European player had the pedigree to even be on the same court with the likes of Jordan, Magic and Pippen. The Dream Team’s annihilation of the competition at the Barcelona Olympics seemed to confirm this point.
Twenty years later, I found myself in a bar Johannesburg bar on the night before the United States was set to play its World Cup opener against England. Over the course of a conversation with England fans, I began to get a little annoyed. The English are nothing if not gifted at the art of snark, and hearing them assure me, “Stick with your team, you’ll get there… eventually,” was too much to bear. I trotted out the same old tired arguments that every American fan deploys: Donovan tore it up during his stint in England, we drew with Argentina (in a friendly), we made it to the final of the Confederations Cup …
I knew, though, that I was making arguments scarcely stronger than my old friend Alpert’s defense of European basketball in the early 1990s. As I thought about it later, it struck me how much American soccer of today is like European basketball 20 years ago. We have players that, given the right system, can succeed in the best leagues (just as Petrovic failed in his first stop, so too did our best player, Donovan, flame out multiple times in the German Bundesliga). We tend to put too much stock in the outcomes of games that we really care about but our opponents do not. MLS backers will too-proudly tout our All All-Star team beating a top English team that was just tuning up in its preseason.
These conversations remind me of watching the old McDonald’s Open, a preseason tournament in the early ’90s in which NBA teams played against top European teams. The NBA teams were looking to coast through what they saw as meaningless preseason warmups, but to a skinny balding point guard from Split, Croatia, this was the opportunity of a lifetime, and he played like it.
Given that European basketball has obviously progressed, this comparison would seem to augur well for American soccer. Our Olympic team, composed of NBA players, is no longer a lock to win major international tournaments and several of the top players in the NBA cut their teeth in the Spanish league. Given the success that European basketball has had, there are several lessons that American soccer can take away.
1. Develop your own style. There is no European equivalent of Lebron James or Kobe Bryant, but it is also true that there is no American equivalent to Dirk Nowitzki. European development programs stressed teamwork, the ability of all five guys to step out and hit long jumpers and passing. (The only American-born player whose game even remotely resembles this European model is Kevin Garnett.) Guys like Petrovic and Vlade Divac carved a place for themselves in the NBA because they offered skills—shooting and passing—that were in short supply in the league.
On the level of the national team, one thing that seems to separate the way Americans think about sports and how other people do is that we Americans view winning as a discrete skill in itself and not just a byproduct or sum of one’s other skills and attributes. Kobe Bryant, for example, is a closer, and we love quarterbacks who can lead a two-minute drill to a victory.
Indeed, one of the many impediments to soccer’s acceptance as a sport on par with football and basketball is that too many games end in ties. The average American fan wants a winner and a loser and a tie is completely unsatisfactory for everyone involved. This makes us a little different than large sections of the world. Japanese baseball, for example, for much of its history did not have extra innings.
I am a firm believer that American soccer can, eventually, add a lot to the world game. One way that this could particularly true is that we help to contribute to an unwillingness to settle for ties, thus bringing a more attacking and audacious style. Right now, of course, we simply lack the talent to pull this off against better and teams, and against the Brazils and Germanys of the world, discretion in the form of playing defensive soccer is certainly the better part of valor.
It is easy to over-do any broad comparison based on nationality, but as we develop more talent it would make sense for us to decide what kind of soccer we want to play. If nothing else, Spain’s success in 2010 demonstrated that commitment to a style and system can pay dividends.
2. Recognize that most players will fail in the top leagues. Though Pau Gasol, Tony Parker and Dirk Nowitzki offer clear evidence of the quality of European basketball, for every Gasol there are five Nikoloz Tskitisvilis who flame out. American soccer message boards overflow with lamentations and gnashing of teeth every time a Freddy Adu or Zak Whitbread does not become the next Pele-Maradona hybrid. Scouting is a hard business, and just like I’m sure Darko Milicic looked fantastic beating up on his hapless opponents in the Serbian youth league, so too did Freddy Adu do similarly well against his youthful peers.
3. When it comes to the national team, it’s about the top few guys. If you were to rank the 100 best basketball players in the world, probably 85 of them would be American. The problem, though, is that you can only put 12 guys on a team and five guys on the floor. Similarly, if the World Cup were won by the nation with the best soccer-playing depth, we wouldn’t even bother with the formality of asking Brazil to show up; they’d always win.
Spain was able to beat the United States in the 2006 FIBA Championship because their top three players were all NBA players. The qualitative difference between Spain’s best player, Pau Gasol, and the best player on that year’s USA team, Carmelo Anthony, is not nearly as big as the qualitative difference between, say, the 15th-best American player (Brandon Roy, for example) and Spain’s 15th-best player… Alex Mumbru?
American soccer fans desperately want a deep run in the World Cup, and the history of international basketball suggests that it can happen. People inclined to lament that the USA is many decades away from competing at the highest levels in terms of our national team may point to the overall quality and depth of MLS as a sign of how far we have to go. For MLS to be a top league in the world, we probably need at least 100 world class players in it, but we don’t need 100 great players to win the World Cup. The depth of talent that we need to develop is much shallower than people realize. Holland’s league title, for example, rarely goes beyond just a few top teams because this tiny nation cannot support a league with the kind of depth offered by the Spanish La Liga or the English Premier League. Nonetheless, it can still consistently produce 15 players capable of making the Oranje a contender at World Cups.
It will be interesting to see how international basketball and American soccer progress in the coming decades. Americans view basketball as their sport, but Spain would have won the 2008 Olympics but for a Herculean effort by Kobe Bryant and a timely benching of Lebron James. And maybe this is where soccer can, in turn, teach us a lesson about basketball. Brazil is the greatest soccer- playing nation on the planet, but they it has lost far more World Cups (14) than it has won (five).
We may have to face the harsh truth that in basketball, while we still produce the lion’s share of the top players and have by far the best league, we won’t always win the major competitions. Conversely, we may very well win a FIFA World Cup much earlier than experts would predict because luck aligns and we get just a few talented players.
In a nation with a reputation for being culturally insular, and for a people that often do not take well to losing, the attention we pay to international basketball and soccer can only help us. Globalization is a tough matter, and in matters of economy and politics, as well as sports, the United States will not always win. How we react to these losses on the field and on the court can make us a better sporting nation, but also a better people: more adaptable, open and progressive in the face of setback, and perhaps even a little more humble in understanding that victory is not a birthright of being an American.