It’s been the common refrain from American basketball observers in the wake of the USA finishing out of the medals — seventh or eighth, actually, depending on Saturday’s game against Poland — in the FIBA World Cup in China:
The USA didn’t send their best team, and the rest of the world is too good at the game now for America to get away with that.
Kobe Bryant said this is nothing new and American audiences had better get used to it.
“I hear that a lot – did we send the best possible team that could come out here. The Redeem Team, we needed a helluva fourth quarter to beat Spain, and we still needed a really late push to beat Spain in the gold medal match,” Kobe said of the 2008 USA Basketball team he was on with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and other stars. “Put the best players that you think are gonna make the best U.S. team out on the floor – it’s still not gonna be a cakewalk.
“The days of 1992 are over.”
That 2008 Redeem Team was an alignment of the biggest stars in the game at the time, fueled by Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski taking over USA Basketball after the USA took bronze in the 2004 Olympics, then finished out of the running at the 2006 World Championship (which FIBA now calls the World Cup because it desperately wants to be like its soccer counterpart). The USA won gold at every major international tournament between 2008 and 2016, but this World Cup was different, with many of the USA’s top players choosing not to come.
Kobe said he understood why many elite players chose not to come to China this year, as some dealt with injuries, while others tried to navigate recovery and moves to new cities (or teams that underwent a roster overhaul). It’s a big commitment to come.
Kobe was in Beijing during this World Cup’s final four — Argentina and Spain will face off for the title on Sunday — as an ambassador of the sport. At his press conference (attended by Rachel Thompson of NBC Sports) the questions about Team USA kept flowing, but his answer was always in the same vein — the world is changing and the USA needs to adapt to that reality.
“It’s not a matter of the rest of the world catching up to the U.S., the rest of the world has been caught up for quite some time,” Kobe said. “It’s to the point where us in the U.S. are gonna win some, gonna lose some, there’s just great basketball being played. Whether it’s Redeem 2, no matter what team it is, it’s not gonna be easy.”
After this showing, expect many of America’s top players to sign up to come to Tokyo next summer for the Olympics. Guys did not want to commit two summers in a row to Team USA, and guys will always choose the Olympics — still a huge deal in America — over the often overlooked World Cup.
Just don’t expect it to be easy for those guys to win gold, either.