Before we get to the 8,000-pound pink hippopotamus in one corner of the room, let’s address the 7,000-pound purple rhinoceros in the other corner.
Really, NBC? Peacock?
Here is the subject of seven different emails I woke up to Sunday from basketball-fan friends, all exactly the same except for the variety of words within the parentheses: “WHAT THE [HECK] IS PEACOCK?”
Of course, maybe NBC knew something none of the rest of us knew when it decided to farm out the U.S. Basketball Team’s Olympic debut against France Sunday morning, assigning it to a channel usually reserved for the binge-watching antics of Dwight Schrute and Michael Scott. Because it might’ve done Greg Popovich and his crew a big favor.
In its own way, France 83, USA 76 was the modern equivalent to the Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas fight of Feb. 11, 1990, which also took place in Tokyo and which also took place with almost nobody watching back home. Maybe USA Basketball isn’t Invincible Iron Mike anymore but it’s still stunning when they lose, but no more stunning than NBC keeping it off free TV. This isn’t team handball, after all (all due respect to team handball).
As for the pink hippopotamus? Look, this isn’t Frederic Weis’ France team anymore. France beat the U.S. at the 2019 World Cup in China. It features three terrific NBA players in Utah’s Rudy Gobert, the Celtics’ Evan Fournier and the Clippers’ Nicolas Batum (and also the Knicks’ Frank Ntilikina, who was an injury scratch). We knew the U.S. was vulnerable, especially after pre-Olympics friendly losses to Nigeria and Australia.
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But this was a little something different. The U.S. had previously lost five games in an Olympics history that stretches back to 1972. Each one was a little different. The first Russian loss, in Munich 1972, was a heist, but it was preceded by an extraordinary last-ditch comeback (capped by two pressure-packed Doug Collins free throws) that put them in position to have their hearts crushed.
The ’88 loss to Russia in Seoul was a routine basketball loss: Russia was simply better that night. The three losses in 2004, in Athens, included a stunning blowout (by Puerto Rico), a payback game four years in the making (Lithuania) and a semifinal loss to Argentina in which the winners simply outplayed the losers.
This was something else.
This was a 74-67 U.S. lead with 3 minutes and 41 seconds to go. This was a 16-2 French run to end the game.
This was USA Basketball choking, in a way that’s never happened before, not at the Olympics. It is almost stunning to believe that a team with Kevin Durant, Dame Lillard and company couldn’t close out a seven-point game, under four to go. But it happened.
(Or at least it allegedly happened; we are still trying to contact one the 16 American households that has Peacock.)
“I think that’s a little bit of hubris if you think the Americans are supposed to just roll out the balls and win,” Popovich said. “We’ve got to work for it just like everybody else. And for those 40 minutes, they played better than we did.”
Very soon, Popovich is going to have to come to terms with the fact that he isn’t coaching Hickory High. When you accept the job coaching USA Basketball, you inherit the history: three straight gold medals, 15 overall (out of the 18 the U.S. has competed in), 25 straight wins (until Sunday), 138-5 all-time record.
“France is a good team and they play very well together,” said Jrue Holiday, the one U.S. player who really did cover himself in glory, scoring 12 key fourth-quarter points after arriving in Japan fresh from the Bucks’ championship celebration only hours before tip-off. “There were times we were up ten or so and we have to keep going. I feel like we’ll get better every game.”
He’s probably right. This is also right: that is no longer merely a hope. It is now, officially, a necessity.