Until last night, the sports world had been mesmerized by the play of the San Antonio Spurs during this year's NBA playoffs.
Every once in a while, a team with more raw talent will step up and take one from them, as we saw Thursday. More often than not, however, the Spurs are going to be the better team on the floor.
Pundits across the nation have been quick to chime in about how the Spurs are achieving this level of success because they are playing the game the way it was meant to be played: As a team. They are only half right.
We all know Tim Duncan, a.k.a The Big Fundamental has always been technically sound. That alone has led many to believe he is one of the greatest to ever play and certainly the greatest power forward of all time.
What about the rest of the team? To a man, guys like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, and Tiago Splitter are nothing close to fundamentally sound. There is, however, a familiarity of sorts in their style of play. Anyone who watches international soccer can see it right away.
Parker and Diaw (France), Ginobili (Argentina), Splitter (Brazil), and even Patty Mills (Austrailia) all hail from countries where soccer is king, or at least close to it. Parker and Ginobili even look at times like they could have been soccer greats in another life. Basketball is still a growing phenomenon in those countries. There is little if any asphalt playground version of the sport played in European and South American nations. Pick-up games usually involve soccer balls. Any basketball is taught by schools and academies, emphasizing fundamentals.
That foreign soccer influence, in my opinion, is a big part of San Antonio's success. Almost every team in the NBA has foreign players on its roster. Nobody, however, gets as much use out of them as the Spurs. These guys grew up wanting to be soccer players, worshipping what is known around the world as the beautiful game. Beautiful because of the cohesion and harmony required from 11 different players on a field in order to have any shot at success.
The San Antonio Spurs and their foreign players have brought the beautiful game to the hardwood. Like great soccer teams, the Spurs are constantly passing the ball, waiting patiently for their opponent to make a mistake and give them an opening. Then, like the finest strikers in the world, they attack the goal before the defense knows what hit them.
In that respect, American players today are at a disadvantage. They grew up in a culture of "me", hypnotized throughout their entire adolescence by highlight reel dunks and legendary individual performances. As a result, they try to recreate those highlights and achievements, often alone, ignoring whatever talent may be around them.
We started to see the effects of this in 2004. Starting with the famous USA Dream Team of 1992, the United States claimed the gold medal in 3 consecutive Olympics. Argentina, a soccer nation if there ever was one, broke that streak in the '04 Athens game. They defeated the U.S. team in the semi-finals and would go on to claim gold by soundly defeating a talented Italian team in the finals. The Argentina squad was led by a scrappy guard by the name of Manu Ginobili.
It won't be the last time the U.S. team fails to win the gold with professionals. The current landscape of the NBA, including the play of the Spurs, is a clear indication of that.
Until American kids can learn to truly play team basketball at a young age, you can expect the San Antonio Spurs of the world to mesmerize us for years to come.