After Domestic Activism, USA Men’s Basketball Shamed on the International Stage

Ibrahim Usta

Maybe a bit more focus on the basketball court than on social issues would deliver a better result.

The Summer Olympics are soon to commence in Tokyo, the year-long delay due to the pandemic still delivering problems as organizers recently announced that there will be no gathered crowds permitted at the games. This has also led to rescheduled trials for countries and a shift in the preparations for contests, including this year’s version of the so-called Dream-Team in basketball. 

In a warm-up contest for members of the NBA, save for a few still playing in the Finals, the USA Men’s team faced off against a supposedly inferior team from Nigeria, and they were promptly embarrassed, losing 90-87. The Nigerian squad, composed mostly of non-stars and bench riders from the NBA, have been blown out by the US in two previous contests, by 44 points in a pre-Olympics match in Rio and by 83 points during the London Olympics.

This time it was a different matchup. Nigeria only trailed by 2 at halftime, and in the third quarter, the US opened up its biggest lead of 9 points, but then the contest was quickly tied. Nigeria moved ahead for good with just over six minutes left in the game. Between the Olympics and World Cup play this is the first time the US has lost to a team from Africa. 

The NBA has been on a steady diet of social activism the past couple of years, and it has coincidently been on the receiving end of dismal ratings as a result. This year’s finals are only up fractionally better than last year, which saw record lows. This year, the league pulled back slightly from the blatant activism, but the undercurrent of social signaling was still present, and the players remained vocal to a degree.

This Olympic team is led by head coach Greg Popovich, another outspoken voice in the league. He needs to be looked at for not preparing a team better and underestimating a weaker opponent — one that exceeded its international positioning. Nigeria is coached by Mike Brown, an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors, and he clearly had his team prepared, playing at a higher level than their international ranking as the 22nd-ranked country.

FILE - In this Oct. 23, 2015, file photo, USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo, left, and Spurs and Team USA head coach Gregg Popovich hold jerseys after a news conference at the Spu

It seems fair to say the game was lightly regarded by the US squad. Nigeria came into the game as 29 point underdogs. To put that into perspective, the US was expected to spot Nigeria 4 touchdowns, and still come out ahead. This was the case even without Lebron James, whose Olympics career appears to be over, and Steph Curry, who wanted to use the offseason to fully recover from a grueling Covid-condensed schedule. 

It will be telling to see if this type of setback will contribute to the muted interest in these Olympic Games. Between the delay, the various protocols in place, and the absence now of spectators, there is a feel that audience interest has waned. If a marquee team such as the USA basketball squad has a diminished interest, it might contribute to a lessened ratings return, something NBC would fear. That network has been hoping for these games to help it promote its Peacock streaming service, something waylaid by the pandemic delay already.