There is something almost inherently unlikable about Team USA basketball. Our basketball heroes stand at the heart of the American attitude toward international competition—a belief system with a one-line catechism, "Are we winning?" and for which the Olympics is the most ecstatic of holy festivals. Thus NBC focuses on the American women's gymnastic's team's reactions to the devious contortions of foreigners; South Korea gets disappeared like so many citizens in its northern neighbor.
Are we winning? Are we dominating? There's the daily graphic of the MEDAL TOTAL, showing how we're faring against China. God help you if you can remember or even saw where a third of those wins came from, but we NEED to win them. In all-time summer games competition, we're only 913 medals ahead of our nearest competitor, the Soviet Union. Did you hear what Team Romney said? THOSE FUCKERS ARE COMING BACK.
The specific victories are as important as the general. At the beginning of 2008, maybe one in 20 Americans knew who Michael Phelps was. Then he clobbered the bejesus out of sports history, till he and his eight gold medals are probably the only thing that 19 out of 20 people remember from Beijing. Phelps was such a perfect avatar of dominance that, going into this year's games, fans actively resented him for apparently not taking London as seriously. He wasn't going to ceaselessly kick ass for us; it was time to trust in Ryan Lochte. Then Phelps beat Lochte—that bed-hopping douchebag, right?—and set the all-time medals record and enjoys the adulation of millions again. Front-runners are forgiven everything.
And nobody front-runs like basketball's Dream and Redeem Teams. Will Leitch has a theory in his book God Save the Fan that, if we Americans were really sincere about our love for underdogs, we wouldn't be able to stomach rooting for Team USA. It is an international juggernaut impeded only by its own hubris (which sent it stumbling in 1996 and 2004). It is a tidal wave made of thousands of Godzillas. Team USA is every dude who ever scared you shitless when you sat in another team's bleacher section, and it has been drinking in the sun since noon.
The lopsidedness in outcomes not only crushes some of the joy of the game, but throws into sharp relief the American fan desire for not merely victory, but punishment. We can't stop savoring it. All the way up to start of the Olympics, ESPN kept running and re-running Jeremy Schaap's piece on the 1992 Dream Team about a dozen times. Lang Whitaker wrote an oral history in GQ. With Jack McCallum's book Dream Team out and the team's 20th anniversary around the corner, everyone retold the story.
Despite being about the team, McCallum's book has little basketball in it. It's a thoroughly entertaining character study and history of bringing pro basketball to the international stage, but he omits all but a few key moments of play—Barkley elbowing an Angolan, Bird bouncing a ball off a ref to keep it in bounds. What game moments do make it in say a lot about attitude: the scrimmage no one saw (which surely was better than every Olympic game); Chuck Daly's rigged college-guy victory over the pros and the pros' trouncing rematch; Jordan and Pippen mercilessly humiliating Toni Kukoc. Each, in its own way, offers an attractive nugget for fans who hold in contempt any nation that would step. to. this. We needed this massive firepower—we morally demanded it—because, in 1988, after 50 years of domination, we only came in third.
When it came to each subsequent Olympics, we learned all the wrong lessons. Toward the end of his book, McCallum writes:
Most of us in America had it wrong. [...] We looked on at all those 40- and 50-point victims in Portland and Baecelona—gunned down, gutted, and field dressed—and we thought they would be discouraged. But for a whole younger class of competitors it had the opposite effect. Where others saw annihilation, the young foreign players saw revelation, a demystified process.
We are a shining city on a hill, after all. What a lot of people enjoyed at the time as the killing of any pretension that other teams deserved to stand on a podium next to USA Basketball was, instead, the germination for the multi-national NBA play we enjoy today. We owe Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, etc., to that performance. We're privileged to experience a net improvement to the game, born out of something very like vengeance.
That much basketball talent will probably never again be assembled on any team. Watching that many all-stars seamlessly run an offense and defense as if running drills was jaw-dropping. But then, eventually, it was an awful lot like watching a team run drills. There was no uncertainty.
And every time uncertainty rears its ugly head again—third place in 2004—we try to tweak the formula to return to the beatdown, to bring back that mean level of abuse. On Aug. 4, the United States squeaked out a five-point win over Lithuania. From a competitive standpoint, it was one of the more exciting Team USA games in decades. But you could watch reactions from fans and sportswriters alike unfold on Twitter and Facebook in real time, and the exhilaration was little changed, perhaps even muted, compared to the 83-point slaughter of the Nigerian team just two days before.
Going from 1988 to 1992—or just going back to Aug. 2—was like watching a kid throw a fit at having lost a sports video game, going into the settings and dropping the computer Artificial Intelligence levels to "tries to make babies with the electrical socket." We liked that Nigeria game, we liked the Dream Team in 1992, and we like Phelps, because we like competing in "God Mode." Even if it makes the competition so inevitable that it undermines everything that we believe should make the NFL or NBA or other pro sports thrilling. For some reason only thinly related to fun, when the Olympics roll around, we are all the Yankees.