The End Of American Basketball?

I can’t remember a more satisfying NBA Finals than the one produced this year by the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat. Two great teams, close games every night, compelling storylines… You name it, this series had it. Plus, it helped that, finally, for the first time in an eternity, the team I actually wanted to win actually came out on top. I’ve become so convinced of my jinxing the teams I want to win that I actually stopped watching Game 6 towards the beginning of the fourth quarter. I’m still pretty sure if I had stayed up and watched the Heat would have come back and forced a Game 7. You think I’m joking; I’m really not.

Another great thing about this year’s Finals is that we all got to see some real life, honest-to-goodness stars on display. Say what you want about the play of LeBron James, but no one can deny that he was constantly the focus of attention this year. James was athletic, in fact, that we were all wondering why he didn’t just take over every game. Dwayne Wade was his usual solid self, and even Chris Bosh had his moments. No star shone brighter, though, than the one of the big German, Dirk Nowitzki.

And that should scare fans of American basketball to death.

I, personally, think Nowitzki is a marvel to watch, albeit an ugly marvel sometimes. Honestly, I don’t understand sometimes how he’s even standing up after some of the awkward, banging spin moves he makes to the basket. And how he hasn’t broken one of his legs shooting off the wrong foot like that is beyond me. He’s not particularly graceful, but he gets the job done. Granted, his defense makes matadors look like spot-up defenders, but at least he’s tall enough to get his hands up high enough to bug the shorter guys when they shoot.

The knock on Nowitzki, though, has always been that he is the prototypical European player. He has great size, but he doesn’t rebound or block shots particularly well. He mixes it up now better than he used to, but he’s not mixing it up on the blocks a la Karl Malone (Of course, you could say the same thing about Bosh…). In short, to use the American-ized term, he’s soft.

And he just led his team to an NBA championship.

I’m really surprised no one is making a bigger deal out of this. For years, Americans have believed that our brand of basketball is superior to all the rest of the world. Our Dream Teams are supposed to crush the rest of the world beneath their feet. European players are nancy boys who roam around shooting three-pointers and grow their hair long and break like glass if they try and set a pick on one of our hardened, chiseled athletes. These are the guys we’re supposed to beat.

Think about it: Miami was supposed to be the Dream Team Lite this season. They had not one, not two, but three legitimate NBA superstars in their starting lineup. One had already won an NBA title, and one of the others seemed poised to lay claim to playoff greatness. This was supposed to be the beginning of a dynasty. Instead, they get beat by a German?

I don’t know what, if any, effect all this may have on the NBA on down. I think there have been enough foreign busts (Hello, Darko!) to make teams leery of going overseas for talent for quite some time, but there’s always going to be that allure to the mysterious potential of someone trained up outside the American system. And Dirk just legitimized the foreign player. Some might point to Hakeem Olajuwan as the first example of this, but The Dream played his college ball at the University of Houston as part of the Phi Slamma Jamma. He was immersed in the American system before he hit the NBA. Dirk came straight from Germany and took his lumps for a few seasons before getting acclimated. Plus, Hakeem played in the post, whereas Dirk has always been more of a seven-foot Larry Bird.

So it remains to be seen whether American players will begin to fashion their games more after the Dirk Nowitzkis of the world than the LeBron Jameses. This also probably doesn’t mean the U.S. is losing its grip as the world’s pre-imminent basketball power. But it might be the first shot across the bow. Maybe we should all brush up on our German.

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