Team USA delivers Olympic spirit in London – not tanking and groin shots

LeBron James (back) and Team USA have been model citizens on and off the court in London. (Reuters)
LeBron James (back) and Team USA have been model citizens on and off the court in London. (Reuters)

LONDON – France's Nicolas Batum had watched these Spanish players tumbling over the most incidental of contact, arms and legs flailing, crashing to the court in mock agony. This bothered Batum a great deal, and it wouldn't be long until he had lost his mind in the Olympic Games. When Batum could've stopped the clock with a slap on the arm, he punched Spain's Juan Carlos Navarro in the groin.

"I wanted to make sure he had good reason to flop," Batum said.

Asked if he believed he had accomplished his goal, Batum told Yahoo! Sports with a smile, "I hope so."

Batum was pleased with himself. In the wake of a 66-59 loss, he stood and declared publicly what France and several rivals had been privately saying: Spain let itself lose to Brazil in the preliminaries to spare themselves a meeting with the United States until the gold-medal game. Batum wouldn't have dared behaved this way in the NBA, but anything goes with FIBA. So much so, in fact, Batum rejected the idea that a punch to a man's groin perhaps left him on the outside of the Olympic spirit.

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"Do you think if you lost a game on purpose, that's the Olympic spirit?" Batum told Yahoo! Sports.

Welcome to the Olympic basketball tournament, where once again the dysfunctional world community doesn't include the United States. From Beijing to London, the Americans have been model Olympic citizens on the court and off it. They've truly been ambassadors of the NBA and America, a team that has gone a long way to transform the league's image home and abroad. They've found ways to become a team, a program, and it resonates with everything they do and everywhere they go here.

There's a higher standard for the Americans – and, make no mistake, sometimes a double-standard – but they've come to understand, even embrace it. Four years ago, it was the Spanish team that posed for a team picture making slanted-eyed gestures in Beijing.

Had the Americans posed that way, the USA's Jason Kidd told me then, "We would've already been thrown out of the Olympics. At the least, we wouldn't have been able to come back to the U.S. There would be suspensions."

It wasn't the United States inspiring problems in '08, and it isn't them in '12. As it turns out, groin shots have become business as usual in FIBA, where two stars – Navarro and the United States' Carmelo Anthony – were deliberately punched. Argentina's Facundo Campazzo delivered the blow to 'Melo, confessing it as retaliation for Chris Paul hitting him. Campazzo didn't get ejected.

Batum's shot had come in the final seconds, and somehow he stayed on the floor. Batum clenched his fist, reached around a dribbling Navarro and swung straight down.

Had a United States player done this, there wouldn't have been another story discussed anywhere in these Olympics until the flame extinguished on Sunday night. Batum is an NBA player, but his act embarrassed France far more than the league. For whatever reason, the U.S. players are held to a standard of representing the NBA and the nation. Everyone else – the Gasols, the Kirilenkos – represent Spain and Russia, that's all.

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If Batum's answers were completely honest, they're a public-relations nightmare. There are ways to deliver a hard foul without stooping to that kind of low-rent cheap shot. Later, Batum apologized on Twitter, but that was long after his first public words hit the Internet like a tsunami.

"I'm angry because we wanted to bring back something to our country," Batum said. "We deserve it much more than them."

Truth be told, France deserves its ticket home. For what was a long-awaited return to the Olympics for the country, a testament to Tony Parker's will, it will be forever marred by Batum's final act. He was right about one thing, though: This acrimony had been escalating between France and Spain. On the eve of the quarterfinals game, French coach Vincent Collet stopped to visit with Russia's coach David Blatt at the Lee Valley Training Center to probe him on some defensive ideas for Spain. For a few moments, they talked about the Spain-Brazil game, and the French coach made clear his belief that Spain had gone down for the count.

"Oh, they dived," Collet said, making a sinking motion with his hand.

The French have a history here, too, so they weren't the ones to be tsk-tsking the Spanish's strategy. In their own way, NBA teams have tanked for playoff position and draft picks, so they aren't innocent. Still, it feels far more unseemly in a playoff circumstance. Nevertheless, Spain left extreme doubt over the performance late in the Brazil game, a lead that slipped away as though the coach and players were dictating an ending. Strange substitutions, wide-open Brazilian shots, the usual European brew for a tanking. Spain's coaches and players strongly denied it, but no one bought it.

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"What's a little frightening and unjust about European tournaments is that you have all this tactical playing for points and for games," Russia coach David Blatt said. "In the NBA, you've got series, so there's no such thing. This is happening in a real-time, competitive environment, and you don't like to see it. I would say most don't do it, but there are those who play the system. I would never do it, under any circumstance. But some do."

Whatever the machinations of European ball, the Americans have stayed out of the fray and out of harm's way. On the way out of the Olympics, Batum declared that France would be European champions in 2013. Whatever. The United States gets two more victories and it wins the gold medal. Again.

"We've got to be prepared to take punches," Anthony said late Wednesday night, and then he considered those words about joining the Final Four of this tournament and laughed. "Not literally," he said.

As Nicolas Batum tried to make his case for where the Olympic spirit belonged, for who deserved a punch in the crotch, the United States beat Australia 119-86 and gets Argentina in the semifinals on Friday night. For all the flops and cheap shots, the tanking and finger-pointing, people should notice: Team USA marches on, and, most of all, marches right.

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