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Basketball's Girly Boys

This column from the National Review Online was written by Rudy Gersten.

The terrorists have won at least one battle with the United States this summer. They have scared away many of our most talented basketball players from playing on the 2004 U.S. Olympic team in Athens. The list of perennial NBA All Stars that either declined invitations or withdrew after previously agreeing to play is quite impressive: Tracy McGrady, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Jason Kidd, Mike Bibby, Jermaine O'Neal, Vince Carter, Elton Brand, Kenyon Martin, and Ben Wallace - to name just a few.

Many of these players have not been shy about why they refused to play for Team U.S.A. Wallace and fellow NBA championship teammate Richard Hamilton quit the Olympic team for "security reasons," according to the Detroit Free Press. Even though their own head coach, Larry Brown, is the head coach of the Olympic squad, both players were apparently not as brave. Same goes for Kidd, O'Neal, McGrady, and Wallace - all of whom cited "security concerns" as their primary reason not to play.

Several of these players will be in the basketball Hall of Fame one day. But there ought to be an asterisk next to each of their names, to let generations to come know that they decided not to represent our country in the Olympics while America was at war.

To be fair, not all of these guys were cowards. Kobe Bryant has a few legal issues to deal with this summer, and Ray Allen's wife is expecting a baby. They get a pass. But the rest of the players who abandoned Team U.S.A should be ashamed of themselves (not that Kobe shouldn't be, for other reasons).

We have more than 150,000 troops from our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting for our country, and for freedom, and yet we can't even gather our best athletes to represent us in the Olympics? No other country - and no other sport - has this problem. So why is it that only our multimillionaire NBA players are so frightened? They are supposed to be the toughest athletes in the world, at least according to the image they like to project on and off the basketball court. So maybe they're really not as tough as they would like us to believe.

An estimated $1.5 billion has been spent on security alone for this summer's games - more than four times as much as the last summer Olympics in Sydney. And the U.S. team is staying aboard the Queen Mary II, protected in waters teeming with Navy SEALS, highly trained law-enforcement personnel, and other military units. The arenas where the games will be played will be like fortresses, with tight security checkpoints and bomb-detecting devices at every entrance. Athens could very well be one of the safest places on the planet. But apparently it's not safe enough for our NBA superstars.

Going into the 2004 games, Team U.S.A was a perfect 50-0 in Olympic competition since they started using NBA players back in 1992. That all changed when the American team was humiliated by lightly regarded Puerto Rico, losing by 19 points. Without many of the NBA's marquee players, they got a rude awakening when they hit Athens. Even in its pre-Olympic exhibition games, Team U.S.A was beaten worse than ever before in an international game, and struggled mightily against teams that didn't even qualify for the Olympics. The blame belongs with guys like Shaq, McGrady, and Wallace - any of whose decision to play would have significantly increased the team's chances for the gold.

It's interesting how the "security concerns" are only an American problem. Houston Rockets center Yao Ming is more than happy to represent China in the Olympics, even carrying the Olympic torch last month. NBA stars Dirk Nowitski, Vlade Divac, Tony Parker, Steve Nash, Manu Ginobili, and Pau Gasol, along with scores of other NBA players, are also proud to represent their home countries. The threat of terrorism didn't seem to scare them enough to miss this opportunity, even though they'll be playing on the very same court as the American team. In fact, we have not heard of a single foreign-born player who declined to play for his country because of safety concerns.

Yet Kidd, widely considered the best point guard in the NBA, was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying the threat of terrorism was "a major concern" in his decision not to play. He added, "As much as the Olympics are about sport and your country...right now the world is at its highest peak of things going on and people dying for their country." So, since the world is "at its highest peak of things going on," this explains his decision not to represent America? That doesn't make any sense. The war on terror makes these Olympic Games, as much as ever before, the time to represent your country in spite of any security threat, real or perceived.

Thankfully, not every NBA star declined to play for Team U.S.A. Two-time league MVP Tim Duncan and three-time scoring champion Allen Iverson didn't duck the opportunity to represent their country. "This is something I would never turn down. This isn't about us, it's about our country," said New York Knicks guard and 2004 Olympian Stephan Marbury. Twenty-one year-old Amare Stoudemire told ESPN that the opportunity to represent his country far outweighed any concerns about terrorism.

Unfortunately for America, many of their peers didn't feel the same way.

By Rudy Gersten
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online

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