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When NBA star Blake Griffin injured his stump-like laig (sic) the wounded Clipper made room on the United States Men’s Basketball squad for overall number 1 draft pick and former Wildkitten, Master Anthony Davis. This made Davis the first player (if you don’t count Christian Laettner and Emeka Okafor and who does?) to go straight from college to the team since 1992. Oh, and he is just a 19-year-old Freshman, not a 23 year-old Senior. Without rehashing too much history of the past 12 months, let’s just say for Davis, it’s been one helluva ride. Every basketball-related award imaginable resides on his bookshelf, right along side remnants of a New Orleans Superdome net from the National Championship game in which his University of Kentucky Wildcats took home the ultimate prize. Hard to imagine another boy making the transition to man on a stage any larger...then you throw in the Olympic games.
Now, I’m old. Old enough to remember the televised Olympic broadcasts sometimes being edited for maximum drama and watched on lazy Sunday afternoons. American heroes were made on these broadcasts, Dwight Stones and his Mickey Mouse shirt. Bruce Jenner before he became a creepy man wife with giant diamond studs and translucent skin. Sugar Ray, Carl Lewis, Bart Connor, Mary Lou Retton, Greg Louganis, Michael Phelps…all–who because of the Olympics and truly only because of the Olympics–at least initially, became known as legendary athletes. That’s what I think of when I think of watching the Olympics. Unknowns, competing in sporting events that most Americans rarely engage in as willing spectators in large numbers.
I mean, I find myself buying into the notion every four years that I could actually judge a platform dive or ref a Judo match or God-forbid, analyze the men’s floor exercise with an astutely critical eye. But the one thing I have never bought totally into is this notion of a Dream Team. The 1992 U.S. Basketball team is widely accepted as the best basketball team ever assembled. Their first game against Angola, I think they won like 116-48. C’mon, Bird, Johnson, Pippen, Jordon, Robinson, Drexler, Malone, Barkley…ugh.
The team’s games usually featured opposing teams asking for pregame photos and autographs—their idols. The USA team was so much better than the competition that head coach Chuck Daly did not call a single timeout during the whole damned tournament! Of course, they won the Gold, yay America…but to me, that just wasn’t the Olympics. Give me table tennis or skeet or I’ll just stare at the buns of beach volleyball girls with the DVR on “pause”(let me digress for one moment, why does NBC act surprised that this event is one of the most vigorously attended and viewed of all the sports on the schedule? It’s tittytainment! NBC, it’s like Bachelor Pad without a hot tub, it’s Big Brother without the bitchy gay guy who hoards the peanut butter. And I don’t mean to use the term only in reference to the ladies, the guys are all rippled with abs and proper shaving and come complete with guttural utterances—the kind the ladies like, I’m told) but don’t make me think about LeBron James going one-on-one against some 5’10 sap from Whocanprounouncethiscrapistan who found out basketball was invented by Nike two summers ago.
But I softened my stance, I blinked, I bought in, just a little, when Anthony Davis made the team. But not just because of his Big Blue heritage, not just because his unibrow has become the state bird...no, I am deeper than that…if only slightly…but it was because for at least a couple weeks this summer, he is still an amateur athlete.
Now before you mention that so many Olympians are already pros and all that, I know this. But being a professional swimmer isn’t like playing in a game 7 in an NBA championship game. The lucrative professional badminton tour is glamorous, sure, but it’s hardly Thunder vs. Heat in OkCity. Every other player on the U.S. Hoops team has been cashing big checks, playing in big games, signing autographs, rocking red carpets, flying jets, buying bling. The Olympics is this cute little thing that they grumble about doing, but their agents and publicists insist they partake. Hell, there were pubic statements made by Miami Heatster Dwayne Wade a couple months back that NBA players should be compensated to compete in London, backing up comments made by Ray Allen of the Celtics. That’s right, while 14-year-old girls compete against each other with ankles taped and tears flowing and parents footing tens of thousands of dollars to travel, train and keep their children sane enough to make an Olympic team, we should write a check to the poor NBA players who dedicate almost a month to representing their country abroad. Now Dwayne claimed it was all about the jerseys he was going to sell for Team USA that led him to the comments. I get it, the Olympics are about money for many, maybe even for most, but to the couch-lying, commercial-watching spectators it’s about a more naive bit of old-fashioned competition. I want to pretend the greatest reward is a photo on a Wheaties TM box. A Subway commercial, maybe a date with a c-list celebrity somewhere down the line. So Anthony Davis represents the antithesis of the athlete who wants his cut of the profit, the spoiled NBA player who only wants to be in the Olympics to make just one more dollar, buy one more Hublot watch or get one more shoe named after them. Maybe he’s not that, but this is my Olympic fantasy. And he has not disappointed.
He’s played limited minutes, but produced every time he’s hit the floor, block, points, dunks. He’s smiled, laughed, hi-fived and made out with the First Lady. Okay, I made that last part up, but he did get a hug from her. He’s at the frickin’ Olympics, He’s on a team with world champions, He’s being coached by a legend (Jesus, I hate saying that) and he will be a Gold Medal winner. And he’s going to do that all before he is completely spoiled by the riches and excesses of professional sports. I think he will take something from this experience that the rest of that team won’t. He’s a true Olympian on a team of professional basketball players who are playing on the Olympic team. Am I overstating this? Maybe.
But a year ago, he was getting ready to start college, like any anxious high school graduate. But with a level of responsibility, expectation and hard work in his very near future that most of us could never understand or withstand. A year later, in London, on the world’s stage, playing world games, with world-renowned names. Now, he probably won’t be remembered like some of the legends of the Olympics for his performance, but somehow I’d like to believe that to him he’ll see how special these couple of weeks are, it will never ever be the same for him. So I’ll watch him and try to see it through his eyes, or at least how I hope his eyes are seeing it. Only difference between us, I will do it with two eyebrows.