Howlympics

The Most Interesting Team in the World

The 2012 Howlympics is an open call for writing about and inspired by the London Olympics. Everyone is encouraged to submit their writing. Find details here.

Six basketball players sitting on the bench
USA Olympic Men's Basketball team players on the bench

I am absolutely fascinated by the 2012 US Olympic Men's Basketball team. I am also a little ashamed of this fascination. I think it's because this seems like an uninteresting choice if you're shopping for an Olympic team to get behind. There's none of that once-in-a-lifetime spirit that most Olympic athletes seem to embody. These guys are not underdogs. They didn't come out of nowhere. They're paid professionals. They're mercenaries. And it's hard to really invest your emotions in mercenaries. It seems rather soulless of me.

At the same time, the members of this team are not only the best basketball players the USA has, they are also celebrities. Now being an athlete means that your successes and failures are easily quantifiable in wins and losses, points scored and points allowed. And being a celebrity means you are constantly the subject of an ever-evolving, publicly argued narrative about your character, your intellect, your morals and ethics, your choices. So being an athletic celebrity means that that narrative will always be one where the clear successes and failures are analyzed as direct reflections of the scrutinized character. Just ask Tiger Woods.

 

So being an athletic celebrity means that that narrative will always be one where the clear successes and failures are analyzed as direct reflections of the scrutinized character.

 

Which means you don't have to follow basketball closely to know all about these guys. For instance, we know all the sordid details of the rape accusation levied against Kobe Bryant. We've heard intense psychoanalysis of Lebron James's choice to turn his back on his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to instead chase a championship in Miami. We've questioned Carmelo Anthony's appearance in the Stop Snitchin' DVD, made to, shall we say, strenuously discourage criminals from becoming informants, to cock a dubious eyebrow at Russell Westbrook's odd fashion sense, James Harden's mangy beard, and of course Anthony Davis' own, glorious unibrow. Meanwhile, all I know about Gabby Douglas is that she's good at gymnastics. All I care about Ryan Lochte is that he swims fast.

Even NBC, which has so far proven to be embarrassingly clumsy when it comes to its coverage of the Olympics, knows this disparity is a problem. This is why they fill time with human-interest story after human-interest story in an attempt to make our understanding of people like Lochte and Douglas as complete as it already is with Kobe, Carmelo, and Lebron. But these few minutes are never enough. They inevitably become simplistic stories of obstacles overcome, of tragedies transformed into triumphs. And while this is heartwarming and maybe makes me root for the subjects incrementally more than I would otherwise, it can't compare to the Shakespearean drama just waiting to break out on the basketball court.

Just watch the jockeying for power and marvel at its Macbeth-ian majesty. Even when compared to other sports stars, basketball players have enormous egos. This is a sport meant to be played with the audience in semi-darkness and the players lit in sharp, unflinching focus. It's the one where fans literally sit next to the coaches. Where the players' faces and bodies, their mannerisms and attitudes, are most exposed. So players build these fortified towers for their egos to sit atop where they are king. But here's what's great about basketball: there can only be one king on the court. Basketball is a true team sport, which somewhat ironically means it heavily rewards leadership. So every team, every good team at least, has a leader. A big dog. And this 2012 Olympic team is filled with players used to being the big dog. So watch as Kobe's hardened demeanor and borderline insane competitiveness do subtle battle with Lebron's status as the most talented player in the game, not to mention the insecurities that his move from Cleveland to South Beach revealed to us. Watch Kevin Durant, perhaps the most marketable player on the team, but also one of its most demure personalities, try to find his position in the hierarchy. Watch who does the yelling and who does the listening in the huddle, who's first off the bench at a timeout to high-five teammates, and who's first off the bus when it rolls into the arena.

Of course, these guys love each other too. That's part of what the Olympics and its patriotism can create in a group of people. But this only makes the battle that much more fascinating. A battle waged between brothers, a battle to achieve a common goal, but a battle nonetheless.

In theatrical terms, this team makes a good case for a nice, meaty backstory.

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Thoughts from the curator

A series inspired by the 2012 London Olympics.

Howlympics: 2012 Olympics

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I agree completely! Good job capturing what attracts us all (or at least the two of us) to 2012 USA men's basketball