Team USA steals Ric Flair's script for rivals, buzz
Team USA's supposed "struggles" are nothing of the sort.
The players and coaches of America's men's Olympic basketball team know that a
gold medal will mean little if they are perceived to have beaten a string of woeful
foes. So to create the illusion that the rest of the world has improved by leaps
and bounds, rendering the race for the gold wide open, our men dropped several
meaningless exhibition and first-round games, hustling all the way but appearing
to have no answer to a host of long-range marksmen.
It's all a ruse. Team USA is following a script by pro-wrestling legend
Ric Flair - one that leads not only to gold but universal recognition as
the most gutsy hoop heroes in Olympic history.
Allow me to explain.
If you have read Flair's no-holds-barred, warts-and-all, best-selling
autobiography, To Be the Man, you know why he is widely regarded as the
greatest champion of all time: his ability to elevate his opponent to
his exalted level, no matter how green, unskilled or unathletic the
It's been said of Flair that he could have a rip-roaring match with a
broom. Displaying his extraordinary wrestling and dramatic skills, he'd
have the crowd convinced that the broom really did have a chance to take
his title. He'd put the fans through an hour-long emotional roller
coaster, then squeeze out a victory in the final seconds - perhaps using
the ring ropes for illegal leverage in applying the winning pin, as
befits the self-proclaimed "dirtiest player in the game."
Flair might even battle the broom to a draw or, if it were a non-title
match, have the broom come out on top. Regardless of the outcome, Flair
would escape with his championship belt while the broom would gain
something far more important, from the perspective of the wrestling
business: a following. The broom would have proved itself to the
locals by going toe-to-toe with the champion of the world. It would now
be seen as a legitimate title contender, and the broom's growing fan
base would turn out in droves a month later for the rematch.
Allow me to introduce you to the basketball equivalents of that broom:
Puerto Rico, Italy, Greece, Argentina, Serbia-Montenegro, Germany,
Australia, New Zealand, Spain, and yes, Lithuania. Many of these brooms
appeared to give Team USA as much as or more than it could handle,
either in the exhibition season or in the first round of Olympic
But note the key point: None of those losses - not even the two
first-round losses - prevented Team USA from advancing to the
quarterfinals, where eight teams started a single-elimination
tournament Thursday that culminates in the gold-medal game Saturday.
Those losses were part of a carefully crafted American plan hatched in
2002 to create a world-wide b-ball buzz by building up its international
It started at the 2002 World Championship. Even though that tournament
is a big deal outside of the U.S., within the States it has always been
met with a collective yawn. Because only the Olympic crown matters to
the U.S. public, Team USA could lose without suffering national
humiliation (much as if Flair dropped the less-prestigious
Inter-Continental belt while retaining his world title). Despite
finishing a dismal sixth, Team USA won by losing: the foreign teams
strutted their stuff, thrilled their fans, and gave them reason to
believe that Olympic gold was now within reach. Whereas previous U.S.
teams had patsies for opponents, future teams would have RIVALS.
Is it mere coincidence that the 2002 coach (George Karl) and the 2004
coach (Larry Brown) are forever linked with North Carolina, the very
state that Flair has called home for 30 years? One cannot spend time in
Carolina, where Flair is a god, without absorbing at least some of his
insights into fan psychology and a champion's obligations to the game
that has brought him wealth and fame. There's only one explanation for
why respected coaches trained by the legendary Dean Smith - and
directing the world's best players - wouldn't crush the opposition:
They believe it would be bad for the long-term global health of the
Brown and Karl live and breathe basketball. Both are hoop ambassadors
deeply committed to "growing the sport," and that means persuading fans
and players the world over that their homeland heroes really do have a
chance against the basketball world's sole superpower.
Team USA will repeatedly give the impression in the closing rounds that
it is a vulnerable, beatable team, as it did Thursday in its
quarterfinal win over Spain. Nevertheless, it will escape Athens with
Our players, who as part of the soap-opera story line (another wrestling
staple) have been ridiculed in the media as unskilled, uncoachable,
show-boating punks relying on raw athleticism, will be hailed as heroes
who overcame their shooting deficiencies with hustle, grit and an
indomitable will to win. In wrestling lingo, they'll go from "heels" to
Fans of the defeated teams will take heart that they've moved one step
closer to dethroning Goliath. Our delusional "rivals" will set their
sights on 2008, the sport will grow, and Ric Flair will smile. Far
better than anyone else, he knows that a broom by any other name is
still a broom.
Dennis Hans is a freelance writer who has taught courses in mass
communications and American foreign policy at the University of South
Florida-St. Petersburg; he's also a basketball shooting instructor. His
essays have appeared in the New York Times, Miami Herald, Slate and
InsideHoops.com, among other outlets, and can be reached at