The greatest active basketball coach is exactly right. After all of the games he’s been able to watch, Coach K probably knows about as well as anybody the joy that comes from watching the game you love be re-embraced by a few new faces every year and being able to watch your “kids” grow up in the game and in life. Mike Krzyzewski, a brilliant architect of offenses and defenses, is first and foremost a builder of something much more important: people. So are the Olympics. The Olympics are kids’ games. Let’s let the kids play them.
The idea of the Dream Team, the 1992 U.S. men’s basketball team that consisted of professionals for the first time, came about for a pretty noble purpose. Reclaiming the game against a slew of de facto professionals and giving ourselves some catharsis for 1972 are certainly decent reasons, but there were some other reasons without which the Dream Team would never have happened. Obviously, the marketing potential of the greatest sports team ever assembled cannot be ignored. Also, the gold medal had somehow entered the conversation (along with NBA titles, All-Star appearances, and MVPs) as part of the requisite hardware for a “great” player and a “satisfying” career, which meant that players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Charles Barkley now required one.
Actually, I really don’t mind the idea of having a Dream Team. But once you try to replicate the Dream Team every two or four years, you turn what ought to be the world’s most revered competition into just another Madison Avenue farce. We’ve had several Dream Teams, and before we send another battalion of professionals onto the court, we might want to think about what we want the Olympics to be. And before you cast your vote for fielding teams of NBA players, picture this: down a point with three seconds left, an American stands at the free throw line. Except it’s not Doug Collins, it’s Patrick Ewing. Imagine taking the gold away from Michael Jordan, who has established himself in every way possible, with NBA titles, MVP’s, a college title, and two gold medals. Now imagine taking it from Jim Forbes, a 19-year-old kid with his whole life in front of him, for whom the Olympics would be the apex of his athletic career. There’s something special about letting people play in the Olympics when it can really be a formative moment in their development rather than icing on the cake. Like Doug Collins said, “You know what those Olympics did? They made me grow up.”
The motto of the Olympics is “Citius. Altius. Fortius.”, or “Faster. Higher. Stronger.” But certainly that’s not all the Olympics is about. According to the International Olympic Committee, “The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” Now that doesn’t sound like something that was meant to feature established professionals. One of the lasting effects of Olympic competition for the athletes is the exposure to new places and to people of different cultures. It’s how the Soviet athletes saw what they were missing, and it used to play a great role in the development of young people who benefited from having their experiences broadened. The problem is that NBA players have already traveled the world, they have already reached the peak of their careers, and they have chosen in the past to stay in hotels rather than in the Olympic Village, where they would meet other Olympians. Plus, how can the “Olympic spirit” be upheld by men who brandish their nation’s flag only to cover the logo of a competing sponsor?
If our aim in ’92 was to heal the wounds of ’72, then we’ve crossed from catharsis into vengeance. If we simply want to put our best product out on the court and win, then we might want to reconsider why the Olympics exist. It’s important to want to win, but at what cost? If we want to win because it will “prove” something, how far are we from the Communist regimes we didn’t want to be like? In the coming decades, the Olympics should be less about getting the marketability and results we desire and more about developing the type of people we want to serve as instruments of “friendship, solidarity and fair play.” This can best be done by sending our amateurs to compete because the Olympics still can be, and should be, the kids’ games.