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InsideHoops NBA [Home]

Team USA steals Ric Flair's script for rivals, buzz





/ Aug 27, 2004

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 foe.

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 competition.

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 foes.

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 game.

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 the gold.

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 "babyfaces."

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, among other outlets, and can be reached at

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