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The Embarrassment of ’02

Why Team USA Basketball’s pitiful sixth-place finish still resonates

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Getty Images

Look at this shit:

This is how nostalgia cracks. It ruptures as you peer through the nylon and into the void of a Team USA starting-lineup graphic from the 2002 World Basketball Championship and realize that the past sucked.

In the opening days of September 2002 in Indianapolis, 50 years after Jimmy Chitwood brought the Hoosiers to the promised land and one year after the Library of Congress preserved Hoosiers in the National Film Registry, the United States men’s basketball team, playing in one of the bastions of basketball purity, committed a national atrocity. And I sincerely wish I were only talking about the starting backcourt consisting of a hobbled, 37-year-old Reggie Miller and an overachieving, spiritually 37-year-old Andre Miller in an internationally sanctioned game of import.

Team USA’s 58-game international winning streak was snapped in the octofinals against Argentina; they lost again the next day to the former Yugoslavia in the quarterfinal; two days later, with the medal rounds out of reach, they lost to Spain in the fifth-place game. The U.S. men’s basketball team finished in sixth place on U.S. soil.

The NBA was still adjusting to a post-Bulls landscape. In the eight seasons between 1990 and 1998 that housed Chicago’s two three-peats, the league scoring average was 101.5; the four seasons between 1998 and 2002 saw a league scoring average of just under 95 points a game — and it would get worse in subsequent years before it got better. In 2002, the Sacramento Kings played the fastest pace in the league, averaging 98 possessions per 48 minutes, which would have placed them 16th in 2016. It’s poetic to idealize the era’s trench warfare — the glory days of the hand-check — until you see the effects culminate. Shaq had a bad toe, Jason Kidd injured his groin in the playoffs, Ray Allen had left-knee tendinitis. Players like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett all decided to rest. The nation’s brightest stars were either too banged up or too tired to pledge allegiance. They needed a goddamn break.

We remember the 2000 Olympic team for Vince Carter’s yamming of Frederic Weis because it’s easier on the eyes (and collective memory) than the rest of that categorically ill-constructed team; there is truly no reason to bother remembering the 2002 World Championship squad beyond the idea of those not remembering the past being condemned to repeat it. My lasting memory from the tournament wasn’t of any single play, but of myself, standing in front of my TV, screaming, PAUL PIERCE, MAKE YOUR FUCKING FREE THROWS.

No, but seriously: Team USA played nine games and lost the free throw percentage battle in every single one of them. Puerto Rico shot 56.5 percent from the line in the classification round that determined whether the teams played in the fifth-place game or the seventh-place game — they still shot better from the stripe than Team USA. The U.S. shot 62.8 percent over those nine games, the equivalent of Tristan Thompson’s career free throw percentage. They lost their three games by a combined 16 points; they left 71 on the table.

Getty Images
Getty Images

This isn’t to reduce the tournament to a game of inches cliche; the U.S. wasn’t good enough to win gold in 2002, even if they did make 25 percent more of their freebies. There was zero accountability on the team from top to bottom, and that includes head coach George Karl, who got, like, Drake-deep in his contemplations after the tournament: “The money and greed of the NBA: does that have an effect on our competitive nature?” he pondered after a game. “Yeah, you can write that.

You could feel the haughtiness emanate from their casual strides in the full-court press, as though they were playing against high school kids. They were burned repeatedly on backdoor cuts and drive-and-kicks due to missed rotations that occurred because they didn’t think enough of the competition to seal off the weak side. After Team USA’s first loss, against Argentina, Manu Ginobili explained how it happened. “We know each other,” Ginobili said. “We know where picks will be, when to cut for a pass. Apparently [Team USA] did not.” That remains the meanest shit Manu has ever said in his life.

But then you look at that forsaken roster, and the depleted talent pool willing to play for the country, and it’s clear that this utter collapse was the likeliest of all possible scenarios. Our boss tried to envision a more perfect union a week after the tournament was over, and his hypothetical solution wasn’t any better. Paul Pierce was the focal point of the team, and his performance was a perfect reflection of himself over the course of the tournament: a magnificent scorer, but petulant and selfish — he was only 24 then, still years away from earning a championship and a reputation as a winner. But what about everyone else?

I knew the team lacked talent; I knew it watching the team the first time around as a child. But upon a second viewing, I wasn’t fully prepared for the absurdity of fringe NBA stars trying to take on the world. With the United States trailing 62–51 in the third quarter against Argentina, the FIBA broadcast ran a three-play highlight reel of Andre Miller drilling Andre Miller–ass midrange jumpers. In the third quarter of the fifth-place game between the U.S. and Spain, Ben Wallace was the only American who could score; he logged eight of the team’s 15 third-quarter points, en route to 12 points for the game — a figure he’d surpass in only 86 of his 1,088 career regular season games in the NBA. And my favorite: After a Paul Pierce 3 that cut Argentina’s lead over the States to seven in the third quarter of the octofinals, the cameras panned to Cheryl Miller in a canary yellow T-shirt, waving her arms maniacally, leading a mob of Indiana fans clad in Reggie Miller’s no. 10 Team USA jersey behind her.

This year’s crop in Rio is the result of the most severe talent drain since 2002, but that was 14 years ago. Our pool of good players is deeper than it was then. The NBA is faster, more spread out, more focused on all-around ability, and less reliant on bruisers down on the block. And the embarrassments of 2002 and 2004 helped create a system that fosters the commitment, development, and accountability necessary in the international game — which means the team will never look as haphazard as it did in the past. We have to deal with Coach K’s insufferable notions of respectability, but that’s infinitely better than Larry Brown’s blatant ageism or George Karl throwing his players under the bus. Things are better now. And if we have to acknowledge 2002’s shitshow, maybe it’s best to remember it as the raging forest fire that helped us rebuild.