A Case for Open Tryouts for USA Basketball

USA Basketball in the Olympics has enjoyed wide success since 1936. Since the first Olympics in which basketball was a competitive sport, the U.S. Men’s Basketball team has won 130 games and lost five for a winning percentage of .963. Team USA has won 14 of 17 gold medals in the Olympics. Our nation’s dominance on the basketball court is unrivaled.

Over the decades, Team USA Basketball has employed a number of models in the formation of various teams for international competition. Few alive in 1992 will ever forget the Dream Team, the team that media labeled the “greatest team ever assembled.” They would represent the very first Team USA comprised of professionals (with one collegian, Christian Laettner). Their superiority on the court will likely never be matched in any sport. The ‘92 Olympic Games in Barcelona were captivated by this larger-than-life team of Jordan, Bird, Magic and the rest.

By the end of the competition, the Dream Team would win every game by an average margin of 44 points. In addition, Coach Chuck Daly never once called a Time-Out en route to winning the gold medal – a forgone conclusion.

But, few know of the history of models exercised by USA Basketball for selecting the U.S. Men’s team for the Olympics.

In 1952, the Caterpillar Diesels, one of the most dominant teams of the National Industrial Basketball League (NIBL) and Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) champion, would compete in the Olympic basketball team playoffs in Madison Square Garden. The Diesels would defeat the University of Kansas team 62-60 in the final game. As a result, Caterpillar’s coach, Warren Womble, was selected head coach of the US Men’s Olympic basketball team and would choose seven players from NIBL (five from his Diesels) out of the 12 roster spots to represent America in the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. That team would beat the Russians in the gold medal game 36-25.

Another unique model was the 1960 team. As the AAU and the NCAA wrestled for control of USA Basketball, a compromise was reached. The NCAA would select seven for the team and the AAU would send four. The final roster spot was reserved for one member of the U.S. Armed Forces. He was guard Adrian Smith. All, however, were amateurs as required by the Olympics charter.

The one firm rule that was the standard for the Olympics was that professionals were not allowed to participate. The Olympics was the showcase for amateurs to display their endowed talents on a stage that elevated passion for sport over money. Professionals get paid for playing their sport. Amateurs do not. Amateurs play when they are not working and for the sheer love of the sport. Money is the basic difference between professionals and amateurs. This is not to suggest that professionals do not love their respective sports. But, the monetary incentive is perhaps the most enticing aspect for their continued athletic pursuits.

On a television viewership level, the 2012 Olympic Gold Medal game attracted 12.5 million viewers. While this was the most viewed US Men’s basketball game since 2000, it could be argued that the grand majority of these households were mostly hardcore basketball fans. As a comparable, Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals drew 10.15 million viewers.

The Dream Team’s final gold medal game against Croatia led off the broadcast for that evening’s coverage for NBC in July 1992. It is worth noting that NBC eventually switched away from the gold medal game since Team USA was soundly beating Croatia. It is also interesting to highlight that viewership increased from 21.5/35 share (or nearly 20,000,000 viewers) to 23.1/37 after the switch.

Perhaps not a fair comparison but worth inspection is the television ratings of the US Soccer World Cup game against Belgium in July 2014. Despite being a weekday game broadcast live at 4 PM EST on cable networks ESPN and Univision, the AP estimated 21.6 million viewers combined from both networks. While soccer is not generally considered a primary U.S. sport in interest, many viewers noted fascination with this team’s potential. The reason, they were clearly regarded as underdogs.

As Americans, we love to root for Team USA. We love it even more when we are the underdog.

Moreover, let’s not forget the tape-delayed broadcast of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” game on February 22, 1980 drew an estimated 34.2 million viewers. While the game’s outcome was pretty much known by all prior to the broadcast, Americans tuned in to witness this remarkable and impossible Team USA win over the mighty Soviets. We were, once again, the underdog.

There is no more compelling storyline that draws audience appeal than a story of the underdog.

The current model of USA Basketball is old, tired and run its course. In 2012, our Team USA finished the Olympic tournament with a perfect 8-0 record, defeating opponents by an average of 32 points. They trailed in the fourth quarter only once and set a single-game record with 156 points scored against Nigeria. What more do the professionals have to prove?

I would submit that it is time for a change once again at USA Basketball.

The Team of Dreams reality television show would open the USA Basketball team up to any amateur basketball player who has not played on a professional level. There are too many great hoops talents still lacing them up on playgrounds and courts across our nation. Many, perhaps, may have lost their way at one time or made one too many poor choices. Some have endured hardships and living conditions that the majority of our fellow citizens could not come close to comprehending.

We have all made mistakes. For some, however, those mistakes derailed certain dreams and basketball stardom. Team of Dreams is about finding those guys before it is too late and giving them that chance we all wish we could have had.

From the initial 10-city Tryouts tour through the Team Competition phase, where the team will be pruned from 100 or so to the final 15, their stories will captivate our nation. We would be invited in to the lives of these dreamers. We will be riveted to our televisions in eager anticipation of the next episode and impending Olympic Games in Rio. Who will make the cut? Who among so many obscure and unknown talents will overcome and rise to success?

Further, consider the possibility of current or former NBA stars, or maybe the Dream Team, giving this team the mentorship required to win in international play. Adding this level of giving back and philanthropy will undoubtedly serve to enhance the images of the NBA, the pro players and USA Basketball. This Team of Dreams would need to put on qualities that perhaps many of these players have never understood or applied. Watching their transformation into this cohesive team will become a large part of this show.

This rags-to-riches story will find new fans of basketball across the landscape of America. A win-win for the NBA and USA Basketball. It will be their stories of redemption and overcoming past challenges and setbacks that will draw many viewers in. We are a nation of second chances. On some level, we will all relate to them. We will long to see their success. And there is nothing more mesmerizing than a story of redemption.

When you attach the prospect of Olympic glory to this team, it takes on a richer and more powerful effect. We will unite behind them. We will stand with them. This Team of Dreams will be America’s Team unlike any before it.

I believe that tucked within our American inner cities and other areas of our country, there is a team of 15 who can not only compete but also win Olympic Gold in Rio 2016. After all, basketball is the lifeblood for many in our inner cities. It is American-made. We will prove to the world that even these second chance hopefuls have what it takes to achieve gold.

There is no doubt that money drives every industry. The Olympics is no exception. Sadly the International Olympic Committee abandoned their position as the heart of sports competition. By allowing professionals to grab the stage for the promotion of their brands and possibly more endorsements rings of nothing but greed. Bob Greene noted in his article “What Changed the Olympics Forever” from 2012, “The one firm rule that always governed the Olympic Games was that amateur athletes were permitted to compete. Professional athletes were not. That’s what made the ‪Olympics‬ the Olympics. Until it didn’t.”

It is time to return to the true spirit of the Olympics and return to amateurs for the love of sport.

Additionally, what if this team, constructed in this manner, offered many segments of our society a closer glimpse into the challenges of inner city life? This show will break new ground for bringing all demographics together and delivering mightily to the public discourse on socioeconomics. The combination of the human element through the reality TV show with the sports feature will offer a unique viewing opportunity. Putting Olympic glory on the line adds the most interesting aspect. The show will not miss an opportunity to highlight the ultimate goal for these characters – Olympic Gold!

So the only remaining question is, what is USA Basketball waiting for? Change is in the air. The shifting model of USA Basketball suggests that nothing is outside of the realm of possibility. Giving second chances to some once lost or unrecognized hoops hopefuls can only add to the legacy and excellence of our Team USA basketball.

Putting USA Basketball at the forefront of healing our nation will be the most rewarding piece of this change. Guaranteed.

Victor Rogers is Owner of Inspiring Hope Productions
and Creator/Executive Producer of Team of Dreams

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