Close your eyes (not yet though) and imagine for a moment that you're a world-class basketball player. Is it really that much of a stretch to believe already? At 13 years old, you probably had perfected being the announcer counting down the shot clock, thousands of screaming fans filling a packed stadium, and Mookie Blaylock swishing a game-winner at the buzzer -- all at the same time. I had, and I'll call more than a couple slabs of blacktop as my lead witnesses.
With your imagination sparked, think about what stage your ultimate backyard last second shot took place on. The NBA Finals, in Game 7 perhaps? I surmise that's the most common answer, at least for those growing up stateside.
Others, who grew up in the 1990's in Europe, South America, and other basketball hotspots may also have mimicked MJ, Pippen, or Clyde the Glide, but perhaps not so much for their NBA exploits. Rather, the original Dream Team is often cited as the key inspiration for millions of future cagers born outside the United States. The degree to which the Olympics inspired, as opposed to the NBA, is debatable, but certainly the summer games 16 years ago in Barcelona opened many wide eyes to the game of basketball.
Meanwhile, some years after the spectacle of the 1992 Olympics, international basketball became an afterthought to many Americans, and arguably to some of the country's elite players, who preferred to rest the rest of the summer to representing the stars and stripes.
By 2003, the program was on a verge of a mini-renaissance, but aside from the hardcore minority, basketball fans in the United States remained far more interested in the NBA than any international tournament. The different rules, unfamiliar opponents and regulations, and time zone issues still work together against international basketball.
The latest edition, dubbed Team USA's second coming, combined with the ever-increasing visibility of international stars such as Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, and Manu Ginobili, has without doubt prompted renewed interest from fans as we close in on USA-China in the opening game on August 8.
More interesting is how straightforward American stars including Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and your very own Michael Redd have prioritized winning gold. The quotes curiously registered nary a blip in the basketball blogosphere, but they loudly indicated one united belief: winning Olympic gold beats winning an NBA title.
Mildly surprised? Utterly shocked? Absolutely thrilled? Eyes open yet?
I'm just the messenger, and an indirect one at that. Check out USABasketball.com's Quotes of the Day from June 28 for the full dish.
The following is merely a sampling. Chris Bosh, Jason Kidd, and others sang, in enthusiastic, varying baritone pitches, the praises of USA Basketball too .
Kobe Bryant: It would be the most special thing to happen in my career. Winning an NBA championship is incredible. But you're playing for a particular market. With a gold medal you're playing for your country. I don't think there's any greater honor as a professional athlete that you can have.
Interesting. There are some, like MJ and KG, to refer to them by their bland nicknames, who have won both, and could rightfully compare. Kobe's got the NBA hardware, and the odds are he'll come back from Beijing golden.
LeBron James: It would be the ultimate. I've definitely put in a lot of time, I've sacrificed a lot of time as an individual. But the experience that I've had has been unbelievable. This is something I can tell my kids' kids once I get older. This is a great experience and to be able to tell them about a gold medal that I won in 2008 would be the icing on the cake.
The King's not exactly faintly praising what the Olympics mean to him. Just another genuinely prideful American baller.
Michael Redd: It would mean everything. Everything. Obviously the NBA championship is awesome, it's the pinnacle, but this is even higher than an NBA championship. This is a whole other level. It would mean everything.
Again, not mincing words. The phrasing makes it sound like he already won an NBA title as the third best player on a great team six years from now led the Bucks to a championship, but you get the point: an Olympic gold medal is truly it.
Chris Paul: Don't get me wrong. I would love to win the NBA Finals, but this right here is about representing your country. All of us represent different teams, different organizations, but there's no greater feeling than to represent your country, to have U-S-A across your chest.
Don't get CP3 wrong, he obviously gets the ladies because of his virtual Blogger MVP status, but not even that can top what is about to happen over in the Eastern Hemisphere, if all goes well for the red, white, and blue.
Add Carmelo Anthony to the list, who was forthright in a recent interview with ESPN.com's Scoop Jackson:
Anthony: That would be the best thing that ever happened to me. The best thing ever, period. Winning that gold medal … [takes a deep breath] … look, I won in high school, I won a national championship in college, I want to win one in the NBA. But winning a gold medal, I don't think anything can top that.
It's pretty obvious I'm not taking anything out of context either when I tell you some of these guys rate Olympic gold above all else. Understand also though, that we're dealing with preeminent talents, but also workday warriors. It doesn't take many November nights to see that Kobe and co. earn their NBA paychecks. Even if they claim one game or competition is slightly more important, that doesn't mean they don't try equally and completely. With very few exceptions, they do. Sure, Kobe might play more aggressive defense when he loses the purple and gold, but that's only because of the nature of the brief international competitions. He's going all out, no matter.
Nonetheless, some of the quotes are quite striking to me. Particularly because I don't predict that many American fans would pick Team USA bringing home gold over (insert favorite team here) winning an NBA title, though I suspect fans cheering on any club other than Team USA would be just the opposite in this regard. The underdog factor can't be overstated.
Then again, you collectively admitted that the NBA champs aren't on Team USA's level. So if your country, say, puts together the best team in the world, in the most prestigious international competition, why wouldn't that rank as top priority? Still worried about "losing" your club star to national duty perhaps? True, this isn't always simple stuff, even for players, and in different sports.
You're encouraged to either back up my hypothesis (I predict more will pick an NBA title) or prove me wrong (I shudder to think) with this here poll at the bottom of the page. Your choice, really and truly.
Postscript: The poll is designed to represent your preference from your actual (fan) perspective. Would your answer change if you were a player? I'm also particularly curious to hear what fans think who are pulling for a team other than Team USA. Please leave your thoughts in the comments.