American exceptionalism is an idea that frustrates a lot of people. Displayed most flagrantly on shirts that read “America: Don’t Like It? I’ll Help You Pack,” the idea that we live in a superior and exemplary country is ridiculous and offensive to people who understand that systemic racism, violence and ignorance shaped our country.
A liberal arts college like Vassar is chock-full of students who understand how absurd and dangerous it is to claim that America is better than every, or even any, other country at a time when the primary categories in which we lead the world are mass shootings and incarcerated citizens per capita.
I am one of those students. I disdain people who bristle at criticism of America as inherently unpatriotic, and I seriously question those who think we are an example to anybody.
Except for when Team USA takes the court. The education of my liberal upbringing, my scorn for people who treat the American flag like a holy artifact, my discomfort at mass displays of patriotism, it all flies out the window when five Americans play a game of basketball against five players from another country.
Since I was six years old, Team USA has assembled collections of talent that you’d be hard-pressed to match on “NBA 2K”. More or less, the men of the red, white and blue have wiped the rest of the world off the court. In the 2012 Olympics, Team USA scored an international record 156 points against Nigeria, a feat that is unlikely to be topped anytime, ever.They won 58 straight games in international competitions. Kobe Bryant threw lobs to LeBron James. Chris Paul whipped passes right to the shooting pocket of Carmelo Anthony, who was transformed by the shorter international 3-point line into a flamethrowing demigod seemingly hellbent on punishing unsuspecting Italian, Japanese and Nigerian defenders for everything that went wrong in his NBA career.
Kevin Durant glided past the Sergio Llulls of the world, a seven-footer moving with a liquidity that sort of convinced everyone for a second that hey, maybe these guys should get paid tens of millions of dollars a year to put a sphere through a hoop. Despite some close calls throughout the years against experienced teams with far greater chemistry like Spain and Serbia, the sheer talent of the Americans was too much for everyone else to handle.
The United States was exceptional—and I loved it. It was innocent patriotism. I felt a lot more comfortable rooting for Andre Iguodala and Kevin Love as representatives of the United States than, say, any candidate for the office of president in 2016 (except Bernie). It was so fun to watch.
And then it wasn’t. For this year’s FIBA World Cup, the normal Avengers squad of First Team NBAers was replaced by one third team guy, what felt like the entire US roster from the 2018 Rising Stars Challenge and Derrick White. As early as the group stage, Team USA barely survived a game they really shouldn’t have, eking out an overtime win against a Turkey team led by fringe NBA players Ersan lyasova and Furkan Korkmaz.
The Americans lost back-to-back games in the knockout round, first to France in the quarterfinals, and then to Serbia in the consolation bracket (a result that Serbia was destined for after their head coach declared “If we play the Americans, may God help them” prior to the tournament). They finished seventh after dispatching Poland, 87-74. Watching the taller, more cohesive Serbians nail three after three and race out to a 32-7 lead in the first quarter, I felt thoroughly crushed.
Enormous white men with the same Aryan haircut were destroying the U.S., one down screen at a time. The narrative I had clung to for over a decade was flipped on its head. All this came after Rudy Gobert and Evan Fournier, two undeniably high-caliber NBA players (let respect be put on the name of Gobert, the two-time reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year), willed France to a 10-point victory that was closer than the score indicated. When the game was still close in the second half, I looked helplessly for the trademark 12-0 third quarter run that Team USA so often went on in years past. Teams like Spain would hang around, and then LeBron and Dwyane Wade would get like nine steals in a row and turn defense into offense in an effortless cascade that was so fun to watch that you forgot it was turning the tide of a very competitive game.
This year, when I looked for that trademark run, I came up empty. There was Kemba Walker, creating oodles of space with his dazzling changes of direction only to be denied by a much slower, taller man at the rim. Donovan Mitchell wielded his athleticism like a blunt force weapon, hurling himself into pull-ups and drives to the rim that petered out when three seven-foot Serbians decided that that was what they wanted to happen. Instead of Melo, it was Serbia’s Bojan Bogdanovic who was ripping nets from deep. Instead of Dwight Howard or Tyson Chandler throwing down thunderous dunks, it was Boban Marjanovic and Gobert elegantly placing the ball in the hoop after unwinding their endless frames.
As the United States lost and then lost again, the hardest part to come to grips with was how utterly unsurprising the results were. Yes, Walker, Mitchell and Khris Middleton are really good NBA players. But on three occasions, the United States didn’t have the best player on the floor. Greece had the reigning NBA MVP, France had Gobert and Serbia had Nikola Jokic, who is made of an enormous mound of putty but passes better than most NBA point guards and will be a perennial All-Star for a decade to come.
Other teams were simply better. Part of that can be blamed on the United States’ best players opting out of the World Cup to work out back home, or give their body more time to recover from the grueling NBA season. James Harden would have helped. Obviously, LeBron would have, too. Ditto Stephen Curry. Hello, Paul George. Kawhi Leonard? Nowhere to be found.
The flip side of Team USA’s diluted talent pool for this year’s World Cup, though, is worth paying attention to. The world is simply getting better at basketball. The Gasol brothers and Manu Ginobli are no longer the only international players worth knowing.
Patty Mills established himself as an Australian hero, dropping 30 on the Americans en route to a pre-tournament victory. Bogdanovic and Jokic teamed up with their fellow enormous compatriots to outplay the Americans. Gobert eliminated layups from the US shot repertoire, and even my beloved Poland got within single digits of the US in the second half. Things that aren’t supposed to happen to Team USA happened with alarming regularity, which leads me to a sobering conclusion.
The United States no longer occupies a head-and-shoulders superiority over the rest of the world in international basketball competitions. Yes, the return of MVP-level guys to the red, white and blue will probably be enough to get a gold medal in the 2020 Olympics tokyo. The footsteps are audible, though. In addition to Giannis’s MVP and Gobert’s second consecutive DPOY award, Pascal Siakam, a Cameroonian, took home Most Improved Player. The NBA had more international All-Stars this season than ever before, which speaks to a trend that is sure to continue as basketball grows as an international sport. NBA fans will keep welcoming foreign stars to their teams, and fans of Team USA will scratch their heads at the team’s FIBA World Cup result. I,like many, am left to ponder the loss of the one thing I knew America was exceptional at, even if only for a moment. Somewhere, some anthropology major is probably cackling at this Restorative and Long-Awaited Buffeting to the American Sporting Ego (“A Contextualization of Defeat Within Discourses of Exceptionalism”). I just want Team USA back.