As the 2006 world championships begin this week in Japan, USA Basketball is the Joe Lieberman of the sports world: defeated and desperate, using every means to claw back toward relevance. They don’t have much to build on: In the 2002 world championship, the former goliaths of the hoops universe stumbled to a sixth-place finish. At the 2004 Olympiad in Greece, they won the bronze medal but suffered more losses than the team had in its entire Olympic history.
It’s understandable that Jerry Colangelo, managing director of USA Basketball men’s team, and coach Mike Krzyzewski are now pulling out every trick to turn things around. This year’s team is rich in talent with the potential to win gold, but they’re greener than a Minnesota banana. Featuring young superstars like LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade, the starting lineup may end up being on average younger than 23.
With such a raw squad, Colangelo and Coach K are understandably striving to develop team cohesion and unity. But their methods are both disturbing and worthy of criticism. As Colangelo explained to Chicago Tribune columnist Sam Smith, “Coach K and I were having dinner last summer and talking about ways to connect this team with America. We talked about engaging ourselves (with the military): ‘Can this become their team? America’s team?’ It seemed like a natural.” The two brought in people like Arizona Republican Senator John McCain and celebrated soldier Col. Robert Brown to speak about how, Smith wrote, “the military, like a basketball team, requires a unified, unselfish approach.”
It is not surprising that Coach K loved the military angle. He’s a graduate of West Point who led the Army squad for five years. And there is nothing new about coaches using the language of war to inspire a winning team. But how does “engaging with the military” translate in these troubled times? It means that Colangelo and Krzyzewski have brought out soldiers maimed and crippled by the war in Iraq to inspire their “troops” in high-tops. This has included Capt. Scott Smiley, who is now blind after a Mosul suicide car bombing sent shrapnel into his brain, and another, Sgt. Christian Steele, who had part of his hand blown off. As Smith wrote, “It was a more than subtle message that playing with ‘USA’ on your jersey means a lot more than trying to win a medal. And it seems to have produced the desired effect of breaking down individual team loyalties and more quickly uniting this American team.”
The team, reportedly, was moved to tears. But there is something unnerving about these motivational tactics.
Etan Thomas, the power forward/center for the Washington Wizards, saw the military presentation on NBA TV and knew in his gut that it was wrong. He said to me, “I don’t have a problem with the troops talking to the players on their own. But for them being brought in to build a better basketball team just feels wrong. If I was there, my reaction would have been completely different. The fact that…Scott Smiley has lost his sight would not have made me feel patriotic pride. It would have made me feel ashamed, angered and saddened that this soldier was blinded at the service of a war we shouldn’t have been in in the first place.”
To use a deeply unpopular war from which, according to a recent Zogby poll, 72 percent of troops want to escape, and using the injured for public relations purposes, feels more like exploitation than motivation, especially when spearheaded by Jerry Colangelo. Colangelo once owned part of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks. Currently, he’s chairman and CEO of WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, and he also has aspirations that extend beyond a gold medal in Beijing in 2008. Colangelo has been pouring his money into efforts to strengthen ties between Republican politics and the religious right. He was a deputy chair of the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign in Arizona, and Colangelo’s deep pockets contributed to what is called the Presidential Prayer Team, a private evangelical group that claims to have signed up more than 1 million people to drop to their knees and pray daily for Bush. During the election summer of 2004, as Max Blumenthal has reported, Colangelo bought ads on 1,200 radio stations urging listeners to pray for the President.
Colangelo has never been shy about using sports to project his politics. On April 5, 2003, he designated the Phoenix Suns’ contest against Minnesota Arizona Right-to-Life Day.
The former Diamondbacks CEO also helped launched a group along with other baseball executives and ex-players called Battin’ 1,000, a national campaign that uses baseball memorabilia to raise funds for Campus for Life, the largest antichoice student network in the country. Battin’ 1,000 stands against all abortions, even in the case of incest or rape. Its motto: “Pro-life–without exception, without compromise, without apology.”
Colangelo has a fellow political traveler in Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K is a longtime Republican donor who made waves when he hosted a 2002 fundraiser for North Carolina senatorial candidate Elizabeth Dole at the university-owned Washington Duke Inn. His group, to the consternation of many non-Republican faculty and students, was called “Blue Devils for Dole.”
In addition to their politics, Colangelo and Coach K have something else in common: There is no published evidence that either ever served in combat. They might have gained a different perspective on the meaning of sports and war had they actually suffered the pain, boredom, fear and death of a live battle.
One injured veteran Colangelo and Krzyzewski didn’t bring in was Army Specialist Danielle “D-Smooth” Green, who lost her hand in a grenade attack on a Baghdad police station. She would have been particularly appropriate as a motivator for USA Basketball because in college she was also the starting point guard for Notre Dame. But Green told reporters from her hospital bed in 2004, “They [the Iraqis] just don’t want us there…. I personally don’t think we should have gone into Iraq. Not the way things have turned out. A lot more people are going to get hurt, and for what?”
That question still hasn’t been answered. Maybe Colangelo hopes that with all the exciting basketball to watch, we just won’t get around to asking it.