USA Basketball? Dream On.

The aura of invincibility is over for the United States of America, which had long been an international force in basketball. When professional players were first allowed to play in 1992, the results were amazing. The “Dream Team,” featuring the likes of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and many others, won every game. Not only did they win, they destroyed opponents, beating Angola by 68 points. Their closest contest came in the gold medal game, where they won by a measly 32 over Croatia.

A mere 10 years later, the winning stopped. I was there to witness it at the 2002 World Basketball Championships in Indianapolis. Even the fact that the U.S. was home, in the middle of basketball-rich Indiana did not help. You could not tell from the crowd support where the games were being played. Perhaps so expectant were many that the U.S. would win, they were more there for the show than to cheer on a team.

Meanwhile, the soccer-like crowds for other nations could be found far from their homes wearing their country’s jersey and chanting throughout the game. The United States would finish a dismal 6th place, losing three times. While other countries had what could be called a “team,” the U.S. had a collection of professional players thrown together for a couple of weeks in the middle of their summer break. And even the Indiana crowd seemed to treat the team this way, saving the loudest cheers for the two Indiana Pacer players on the team, even when one of them (Reggie Miller) was hurt and not in the game.

So, how did the rest of the world catch up so quickly? First of all, the repercussions of the original Dream Team were greater than you might imagine. The Olympics provided the rest of the world a chance to see—and dream themselves. Little kids started bouncing basketballs wanting to be like Mike. Some of those, like Pau Gasol of Spain, would indeed grow up to be quite tall, and good, and end up in the NBA. Which brings us to the second reason: the NBA, the U.S. professional league, has taken great strides to go international. Precisely because of that, children can be found all over the world playing basketball, where before they wouldn’t have. And in many places worldwide, perhaps they even watch a game on TV. The number of international players being drafted in the NBA is now growing each year. There are camps in places like Africa, where players who would otherwise lack the coaching and equipment can now develop as players.

Don’t get me wrong. I hope, and think the Americans have a good shot of winning the gold medal this year, led by Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, and others. But it will be anything but easy. The sting of the 2002 defeats prompted USA basketball to attempt to get not only stars, but superstars to play in this year’s Olympics, to avoid a reprise. But concerns of security, injuries, and personal commitments have kept many away. With an average age of 23.6, many are not considering the Americans the prohibitive favorite for gold. Just 12 years ago very few suspected this day would come so soon.

While basketball has been America’s game, soccer has been precisely the reverse. Soccer, called football everywhere else, is the most played sport in the world. It is one of the cheapest sports to play because, in its most basic form, you just need a ball to kick around. Therefore, it puts everyone on equal footing, so to speak, which is why being a rich country doesn’t guarantee success.

The World Cup, soccer’s crown jewel, is the lone sporting event that eclipses even the Olympics. 205 countries enter to see who can be the best in the world at the world’s game. The World Cup has long been dominated by European and South American powers. But in 2002, the same summer that the rest of the world was catching up to the U.S. in basketball, the USA showed signs that they were finally catching up in soccer. The United States had perhaps their most impressive performance yet (considering the competition as well) advancing to the last 8 before narrowly losing a winnable game to soccer power, Germany.

Soccer’s worldwide governing body, FIFA has made strides to have more of the world discover the joy of soccer by rotating who gets to host the World Cup. Co-hosts Japan and South Korea got this chance in 2002 and ended up providing Asia with its best World Cup finish ever. The United States was given a similar chance to host in 1994. In what proved to be one of the most highly attended World Cups of all time, the United States made the most of this and launched a professional league, Major League Soccer (MLS) in 1995. MLS has been one of the means to helping the U.S. catch up in soccer.

Interestingly enough, one of the ways is to stock the league with International players from the rest of the world. At 38% it has the highest percentage of foreign players than any other of the major U.S. sports leagues (if you don’t count Canadians in hockey). But MLS has also provided an outlet to develop younger American players, that it didn’t have before. As an alternative to college, chosen talented players, like Santino Quaranta were allowed to enter the league at a young age. Of course the most notable recent case of this, is Freddy Adu, who made his professional debut with D.C. United last April just before his 15th birthday. MLS has even now gotten to the point of losing top Americans to Europe, with goalkeeper Tim Howard leaving last summer for well known English club Manchester United, and with this summer seeing the departure of DaMarcus Beasley and Bobby Convey, to name a few.

While we have to wait until the 2006 World Cup to see if the U.S. can do even better, I can no longer say for sure that they will fare worse than the current Olympic basketball team. And maybe now that it is no longer sure who will win what, it will be more cause for us to root them both on as they go, whether on the soccer pitch, or the basketball court.