2002 USA Dream Team: An American Nightmare

In the recent FIBA World Basketball Championships, the USA learned a hard lesson… raw talent and superior athleticism can be neutralized by sound fundamentals and gritty play. The abysmal performance by the USA basketball team may be a reflection of the sports culture of America more than it is an indictment of the 2002 "Dream Team."

The American sports public has developed a "highlight" mentality with an emphasis on scoring and sensational plays: the touchdown, the homerun, the goal, and yes…  the dunk! This phenomena also finds its way into the
board sport of chess where slashing mating attacks and tactics rule the day with young American players.

Paul Pierce and Ben Wallace vs. Argentina.

One reason for Europe's long history of domination in modern-day chess has to do partly because young European players develop a stronger grasp of chess fundamentals in all phases of the game… especially the endgame. Ukraine's Sergei Karjakin didn't become a Grandmaster at age 12 studying only opening theory and tactics. On the other hand, U.S. players seems more concerned with learning a vast amount of opening theory, tactical themes, and attacking play. The endgame is usually the last phase of the game to receive attention… if at all. In some European schools, it is the first.

Anyone who has played a competitive sport will tell you that a well-trained team with average talent and sound fundamentals will almost invariably beat an immensely talented, but untrained team lacking sound fundamentals. This became evident when the US couldn't defend backdoor plays and missed a ton of free throws in losses to Argentina, Yugoslavia, and Spain. The key difference was  fundamentals!

If National Basketball Association (NBA) players really want to see an example of where they need to be, they should talk to the world's top two tennis stars,
Serena (#1) and Venus Williams (#2).  Both have raised the level of international tennis not only with their athleticism and raw talent, but with a tremendous grasp of fundamentals taught to them by their coach and father, Richard Williams. Even if they refuse advice from a tennis player, there are few basketball players more fundamentally sound than Michael Jordan, the greatest player ever.

Michael Jordan being checked by 'Magic' Johnson.

Fundamentally Sound

Michael Jordan & "Magic" Johnson

It would be prudent to believe that US basketball is better for this experience and perhaps it will encourage coaches to instill more fundamental play into young players. In all fairness to the USA basketball team, it was NOT a National Team, but a hodge-podge of NBA stars hastily assembled for a month. However, the days of American arrogance in basketball are over. It would be interesting to see whether the next NBA champion will label itself as "World Champions." The 2002 FIBA World Championships have changed the scope of international basketball, and perhaps American sports forever.

Lesson: Whatever mission you undertake, whether in basketball, chess or science… learn the fundamentals!!

Posted by The Chess Drum: 9 September 2002