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Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 17

And finally I want to look at the third of the ‘big three’ sports in America and that’s basketball.   Another American invention, basketball is unique in that it is played by many other countries and has been for quite some time.  More relevantly to the overall point of this article series, it has been part of the Olympic program since nearly the beginning.

This allows me to look at the US both in terms of basketball locally in terms of its impact on American sports as a whole as well as the whole sporting dominance thing.  And trust me, you’re going to see  a new definition of dominance in today’s piece.   It’s also, mercifully, shorter than the previous two parts on football and basketball.  Giving nitpickers time to read this.

And with that out of the way, let’s play some Basketball.

How the Game is Played

Basketball is played on a court, generally wooden at most competition levels although many courts are invariably concrete.  The goals are at each end and are actually vertically hanging hoops that are about 10 feet off the ground with a backboard behind them and a net underneath; they are called baskets and peach baskets were actually used when the game was first being developed.  The design of the court is shown below and it’s worth mentioning that it is only 91 feet (27 meters) end to end.  Meaning that it doesn’t take up the space that football or baseball or many others sports do.

Like all ball games the goal is to score points and this is done by putting the basketball which is 29 inches in diameter into the hoop or basket which is 38 inches in diameter in various ways described below.  While the shot might seem impossible, note that the ball merely has to go through the hoop/net but how it does it is not relevant.  You can bounce the ball off the backboard, or catch the edge of the rim such that the ball rolls in or, if you can do it, shoot it so it doesn’t hit the rim at all which is called getting ‘nothing but net’.  It’s still highly skilled but it’s not as if you have to hit an exact space with the ball (as in baseball and the strike zone).  In any case, the layout of the basketball court is shown in the diagram below.

Basketball court
Most courts are not burnt orange

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The game is played 5 on 5 at most levels (although the nature of it allows for 3 on 3, 2 on 2 or even 1 on 1 games as shown in this computer simulation) and teams switch offense and defense more or less continuosly with no stopping (except for time outs, fouls or the end of the play period).  Whomever has the ball is on offense and the other team is on defense.  And unlike most ball sports, where offensive and defensive positions are somewhat rigidly defined, this is not true in basketball.  Every player can and will attempt to score and/or defend and the game is much more free flowing in this sense.

On offense, the players may move down the court but only so long as they are dribbling the ball and this refers to bouncing the ball up and down on the court (and having it return to their hand).  This is harder than it sounds when you’re not watching the ball and trying to read the play, look for defenders and/or look for scoring opportunities.   If the player is not dribbling he can only take a step or two, any further and he gets a foul called.  He can also pass the ball to other teammates anywhere on the court who then dribble the ball, pass again or try to score points.  I’d note that the invention of dribbling was also the key to basketball, prior to that it was just a modified ball sport where guys ran with the ball.

Points are scored, again, when the ball is put into the basket.  This can be done by hand in a variety of ways (including a slam dunk, shown below) and this is worth two points.   Here’s Michael Jordan, the best to ever play the game dunking.

The ball can also be shot from anywhere within the half-circle shown above, that’s also worth two points.  Finally, a shot can be taken from outside that half-circle line and that’s worth three points.  It’s harder but important when your team is behind.  It also gives white players something to do (see below). Strictly speaking, a basket can be scored from anywhere and half-court or even full court shots are not unheard of.  It’s only 100 feet and teams often make desperation shots at the end of the game throwing the ball from one end of the court towards the other basket.

Outside of putting the ball in by hand, shots are either taken with both feet on the ground or by jumping into the air prior to shooting (a jump shot).    This is done to get over defenders and put the ball higher up in the air so it has a better shot of coming down on the hoop from above (it’s more likely to bounce out if the trajectory is flatter).  Note, if the ball hits the basket and bounces back out, anybody can grab it (this is called rebounding) and this is one of many ways possession changes.  If a basket is scored, possession automatically changes.

In the case of penalties, shots are taken from the short straight line (the free throw line) and each shot is worth one point.  Depending on the situation, a fouled player either gets two free throw shots or 1+1 (where he only gets the second shot if he makes the first).  No other scoring options exist.

Free throw shots must be taken with both feet on the ground and, amusingly, in the early part of the game they were shot granny style, underhanded between the legs with both hands instead of the modern overhand single handed shot.  It’s actually a better shot from a physics and statistics point of view but nobody uses it because it looks lame.  Seriously, that’s why people stopped using it.

In any case, while the offense is trying to score a goal by passing and dribbling the ball waiting for a shooting opportunity, the defense is trying both to prevent a score and/or get possession of the ball.  As soon as the opposing team gets the ball, everybody switches from offense and defense and they move down the court towards the other goal; kind of like in Commie Kickball or hockey.

To gain possession of the ball, the defense can intercept a pass, catching it out of the air, knock it away while it’s being dribbled (requiring fast hands) or grab a rebounding ball.  They can also block a shot.  This entails grabbing the ball out of the air (after it has left the shooter hands) or physically swatting it out of the air as shown below.

This is part of why offensive players often jump (a jump shot is harder to block and/or knock out of the air) but it also has implications for the physical characteristics common to top level basketball players.  What the defense can not do is physically pull the ball out of a player’s hands.  And just to piss off the basketball purists, I’m not defining goaltending. And while there is some shoving and jostling for space on the court there is little contact and almost no risk of violence unless a fight breaks out.

Because of the nature of basketball, scoring opportunities happen on nearly every possession and scores tend to be high, often in the triple digits (in one famous game Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a single game by himself).  Like football, the game has a shot clock and a player must shoot on goal within a certain time or possession is also lost. He also can’t stand in place for too long without moving.  Before the invention of either, teams used to just hang back and play modified keep away to run out the clock making things as boring as Commie Kickball.

So the game is just a continuous thing of 5-man teams moving back and forth down the court alternating offense and defense and trying to score points.  Play is continuous and spans different periods of time depending on who’s playing (i.e. high school is different than college or the pros).  Play stops briefly if the ball goes out of bounds, when a goal is made, when a foul happens or a time-out is called.

There are both offenseive and defensive strategies including plays run by the offense as well as different approaches taken by the defense.  Defense may play man-to-man (each defender guards one player), or zone (players defend a given zone) or double team someone (put two defenders on one particularly powerful offensive player although this leaves someone else wide open) and the game is basically drilbbling, the ball being passed around until an opening presents itself to shoot or drive on the goal and take a shot.  And to remind you, while there are positions, they aren’t as rigidly defined as in most ball sports and the players are basically interchangeable.

Relative to most ball sports, scoring is much easier and this is reflected in the high scores.  As well, because teams score more easily, it can be difficult to either get a large lead or make one up and scores often stay close (within 2-4 points or so) of one another.  In most games, teams just alternate scoring back and forth on one another.

To gain a lead means either a team making a 3-point shot to the other’s 2-point shot or stealing the ball and scoring twice to the other team’s once.  Coming back when you’re behind means doing it the other way around.  So if you’re 10 points down you either have to outscore the other team twice to their once 5 time in a row (so you gain 20 points to their 10) or make consistent three point shots and make it up 1 point at a time

This also makes coming back from a big deficit a pain in the ass, when another team gets 10 points (5 baskets ahead) caching up can be a nightmare because you have to consistently score two baskets for every one of theirs to make it up.  And do it without them doing it back to you.  Or shoot 3-point shots.

But overall basketball is fast moving, high scoring and pretty exciting.  And if you watched much of the above videos or any related videos, you may have noticed a singular thing: at the highest levels, it’s almost exclusively blacks on the court with a handful of exceptions.  And there are several reasons for this.

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Genetics and Physiology

Basketball has a number of requirements not the least of which is jumping ability, speed, some endurance due to the continuous nature of it and running back and forth up and down the court.  Of course, due to the jumping, blocking and rebounding nature of the game (and the fact that the hoop is 10 feet off the ground), being tall helps.

While there have been some excellent short players (Spud Webb, who was only 5’7″, is perhaps the most famous short player) tall is one selection criteria for the game.  Which makes it tough for a lot of countries to do much in the game (Yao Ming, at 7’6″ is rather unusual as one of the few Chinese professional basketball players in the US).

Of course, there is the sheer skill of the game, dribbling, passing, reading offense or defense and you get that by being exposed to it from a young age and getting lots of practice.  And of course, being able to shoot a ball into a hoop that is only slightly larger than the ball itself.  It’s a sport that combines a monstrous amount of skill with a fairly specific set of physiological characteristics and requirements including speed, power, agility and tall.

And they pretty much point to blacks of a certain descent being built for the sport.  If for no other reason than an oddity I pointed out in the article Training the Calves which is that blacks often have very high calves (which limits their growth potential from a bodybuilding standpoint).  Said high calves being designed for high speed movement and being absolutely excellent for jumping.  An anatomical evolutionary adaptation that happens to hurt bodybuilders is beneficial for speed and power performance.  And jumping.

And yet, with its inception in this country (and in the earliest part of the game Internationally) the game was played almost exclusively by whites.  Now, when it comes to other countries and international or Olympic competition this makes sense; a majority of countries in the world don’t have a black population of any sort; it’s just a bunch of pasty white Europeans.  What I’m saying is that Germans got no game when it comes to playing hoops.

But that doesn’t explain America which has had a large black population for reasons related to a certain ugly part of our history involving slavery that I’d rather not get into.  But blacks, by and large did not play the game in the earliest days of the game.  It was purely whites for a large majority of time the game was played.  And it’s worth looking at why.

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A Brief History of Basketball and Racism in America

Basketball was invented at the end of the 19th century, but blacks wouldn’t be introduced to the game until 13 years after the game was invented, in 1908, as detailed in the wikipedia article on Black Participation in College Basketball.  By 1910 it was the most popular game among blacks in the US, but it was only played by them at the high school level at that point.    Some of which simply reflected certain socioeconomic realities of college and the black population in the country which I’ll come back to under location.

And while there were collegiate black players in the 1920’s and 1930’s it wouldn’t be until the 1940’s that blacks would truly become integrated into the game at the college level.  The first all-black team wouldn’t be fielded until 1968 as detailed in the documentary Glory Road.   Since that time, it’s almost nothing but.

Now, you will still see white players at the high-school level but this is often just a reflection of the school’s demographics.  My own high school had an all-white basketball team for example, it was also an all-boys prep school and I’d note that our first black graduate ever was in 1987.  In the years I was there, we never had more than one black student period when I was there.  In public schools with large black populations, the teams are usually all-black or close enough to it to make the distinction irrelevant.  Our team might get to the state semi-finals or something before having it’s ass handed to it by an all-black high-school team.

At the college level, you will also still see some white players, usually top high school players on scholarship or who have some really serious abilities on the court.  Someone has to be able to shoot the three point shot in any case.  Which sounds racist but isn’t as much as you’d think; since they often lacked the sheer talent to drive on the hoop or dunk or get past defenders, white guys often focused on shooting the 3 so they can still play a role on the team.

And by the time you move to the professional level in this country, the sport might as well be all black; the exceptions are just that.  Here’s why.

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Location, Location, Location

There were a number of factors that added up to the popularity of urban American blacks who, again, existed under certain socioeconomic conditions, usually in very urban areas.  The first is the size of the playfield.   Unlike baseball or football, you didn’t need a monstrous piece of flat grassy land (which usually can’t be found when everything is paved in the first place).

And, in contrast to football (and to a lesser degree baseball), there wasn’t a ton of expensive equipment needed.  The ball was the main piece of gear.  Hang a rim up high (the net isn’t necessary) and you have a hoop; early games used peach baskets for example.

Basketball courts work just fine on pavement and can be found most anywhere in urban areas.  The small size of the playfield, a mere 100 feet long, helped too.  Basketball can even be played on half that size called half-court basketball.   In this version, rather than running from end to end, teams just switch sides after each basket is scored and resume the game.  Two full games of half-court basketball could even be played on a single court, allowing more people to get involved.

Add to this the relatively unspecialized nature of the positions where everyone plays relatively similar roles on both offense and defense.  Because while basketball is played 5 on 5 in official competitions, it can also be played 3 on 3, 2 on 2, or 1 on 1 (a test of nothing but individual skill).  And, quite matter of factly, often is for reasons ranging from a lack of teammates to wanting to see who is the best without the team dynamics.  The requirement for an entire team of specialists as in baseball or football doesn’t exist in basketball.  All you need is the skills to play the game.

And when you add all of this up, that gave you a sport that was pretty damn close to a universally accessible sport.  It’s not running accessible but it’s not far off.    And this made is imminently attractive to a group (urban blacks) who not only existed under certain socioeconomic realities (and often lived in certain areas) but who just happened to have the right physiological traits to dominate the game once they were allowed to play.  Which is exactly what happened.

Make no mistake, whites played the game but more often indoors on hardwood courts a you’d find in a typical school gymnasium (which would be used for other activities such as volleyball or what have you).  And, of course, that’st where all international and professional games are played (but look up street hoops for another version of the sport which is insanely popular).  Which also means that it’s a game that can be played under all weather conditions.  And the relatively size of the court means that even stadiums don’t have to be stupid big.

But when you add up all of the above, the more or less easy access to the game coupled with the socioeconomics of a group that happened to possess (on average) certainly physiological characteristics, you get one of those cycles like in Kenyan running where success starts to breed more success.

Folks who couldn’t afford even the middle class games of whites could play basketball.  And a tradition developed in the urban black community with heroes, and all of the rest.  And that means thousands of potentials being fed into an organic system of competition (and being helped by older players, similar to the Kenyan system) which selects for the best.  And a huge part of that is playing street ball in the urban ghettos of this country which is where a tremendous amount of talent in the game comes from.

And of course that ties in with:

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Incentives

Which is still always the key to this.  Because as soon as collegiate and professional basketball become open to all comers that meant that basketball offered a very real way out for a lot of people without other options.  College could be an end in and of itself, a way to get an education that wouldn’t otherwise be available.  And of course, at the pro level, players are treated like royalty.

Money, fame, women (I mentioned previously that Dr. J supposedly had sex with 20,000 women), they get it all to put a ball into a hoop for being good at a game that was simply what was available in their community as a function of being black and, to be blunt, poor.

A game that inner city blacks played for lack of anything else available became a straight shot to a better life.  Here’s an actual documentary about this, how basketball is a way out of the ghetto for many blacks.  It’s called Hoop Dreams and gives a good indication of the role that the game plays in this singular group in America.

And that’s incentive like you wouldn’t believe.

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So Who’s the Best?

Here I’m going to seriously say that it’s clear on every level that Americans own basketball in addition to owning the rest of the world in the sport.  And this time not just because we invented it and/or hold only a local championship; I’m not being silly.    You can’t really argue that about football (since we don’t compete with anybody) and baseball is even questionable since we didn’t do as well at the Olympics as you’d expect.  But with only 5 Olympics having baseball, it’s not a very big sample size.

But with basketball it’s different.  Here the dominance is absolute and unquestionable.  Because basketball has actually been contested internationally and been part of the Summer Olympic program since 1936 and played at every summer games since then.  And now you’re going to see domination.  I will simply quote from the Wiki:

The United States men’s basketball team won all of the gold medals in the men’s competition from 1936 to 1968. The Olympics included women starting in 1976. The USA women’s national basketball team won the silver medal at the 1976 Olympics, a bronze medal in 1988, and a gold medal at all other competitions.

Read that again, the US won every gold for the first 30 years the game was played. And the women have won every gold except two.  And if you look at the Wiki page, you’ll see that the worst that America (and this includes the other Americas) placed was third in 1988, we took one second and the rest were gold.

The 5th place in 1980 doesn’t count because the US wasn’t at the Olympis (we boycotted).  The Americas there refers to all of the other countries I’ve been ignoring and they still came in 5th.  If the US had been there, we’d have done better.  But out of the 17 Olympic games that basketball has been competed in, the US has taken gold 14 of them with one silver, one bronze and one that doesn’t really count.  That’s domination.

But it gets worse.  Because remember how I talked about that whole amateur thing earlier this week?  The NBA, the National Basketball Association which oversees pro-basketball was started in 1946 which meant our best (who had turned pro) weren’t allowed to play from that point on.  So for most of the time the US was playing Olympic basketball we weren’t even sending our best.   It was American amateur basketball players simply handing the world it’s ass on a plate at this sport.

Of course, in the 1990’s, the amateur rules were rescinded for some sports and we could send pros.   And in 1992, the word domination was redefined because, for one reason or another, the US decided to send the Dream Team.  A hand-picked team of our best pros (including Michael Jordan) who went to the Olympic games and didn’t just win the medal, they flat out embarrassed every other country in the world.  For example, we stomped Cuba 136-57, I guess those Russian sports secrets didn’t work out so well.  And we won every game by an average of over 40 points.

This was domination on par with the Harlem Globetrotters vs. the Washington Generals ‘game’ (look it up).   It’s the kind of thing that happens when you let top college team play the pros for the sheer hell of it.  Except that it was the best in the US against the best the rest of the world had to offer.  All their resources, all of their sports secrets, all of there everthing that doesn’t exist here.  And the competition was simply a joke.  But only we were laughing.

Jordan was so good he probably could have taken on most international teams by himself and at least gotten a tie, just going 1 on 5.  Give him one guy to help (a Pippin or Shaq or something) and the game is over: America wins.  Just let three other guys (or hell, cheerleaders) mill around on the court because you have to have 5 players out there and those two guys beat the best every other country offers.

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Another One for the Ladies

I’d note in this regard that basketball is one of the few American sports with it’s own professional women’s league (women’s basketball is huge at the collegiate level).  And a great many of them are black (as in Kenya, there isn’t as much of a tradition among black women to pursue sport so you see a bit more of a mixture on women’s basketball teams).   And as above, American women have been just as dominant in basketball as the men at the Olympics, winning all but two golds in the nearly 40 years that they’ve been included in the summer games.

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Why We’re the Best

There’s simply no clearer indication of American dominance in a sport than basketball, a game we have invented and taken nearly every gold medal in (mostly with our amateur players) at the Olympics.  And that despite the lack of a central sports system (ala Foreignland ™), despite being hamstrung by amateur rules, despite being hamstrung by the all-star nature of our trials and slight differences in international versus professional play.  None of it matters, America owns basketball.

And the reasons why are the same reasons for the other sports domination I’ve talked about in earlier parts of this series.  Due to the history and accessibility of the sport, along with it being a damn near institution among inner city (and really, all) blacks in this country, we have an absolutely staggering number of players raised on and entering the game from a young age.

Even if they lack formal coaching, there are tremendous numbers of other athletes playing the game to teach them. Competition at all levels ranging from street hoops to our massive high-school and college branches is intense and selects only for the best.

And of course, due to the ethnic makeup of the US, including a large population of blacks of West African descent, coupled with some general socioeconomic realities in the group, coupled further with absolutely massive incentives (fame, money, glory, women, college), they pursue it with a zeal that simply drives the best to the top.

Our depth in the game is unmatched and, simply, we have the best on the planet brought up in a situation not unlike the Kenyan running ‘system’.  It developed organically over the history of the country and produces the best athletes in the sport without question.  That’s what the US brings to the table in basketball: the best physiological specimens raised on a game and subject to competition to select the best.  Other countries,  well, other countries have a bunch of pasty white men who can’t jump (China has Yao Ming and he plays in the US professionally because he’s a giant).

And we do it with no centralized system whatsoever. It just happened as one of those lucky coincidences where everything came together in just the right way.  It just happened to be the exact same way that produces success in every other sport: massive numbers, easy access, tons of coaching, massive incentives.

Which wraps up my look at the Big Three sports in this country in detail.  And since today was mercifully shorter than the last two parts, I’ll use the extra space to look at another consequence of the existence of the big three in this country, one that does directly impact on the talent that we can apply to other sports.  Including Olympic lifting.

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Another Consequence of The Big Three

Remember how I made a big point about numbers of athletes throughout this series?  How the Russians were able to throw a staggering number of athletes into all sports but smaller countries how the GDR and Bulgaria had to focus but put what athletes they had into a handful of select (or a single) sport, and how China one upped them all by throwing a staggering number of athletes into carefully selected sports?

This is relevant because no matter what else you do, at the highest levels you have to find someone with just the right talent, biomechanics, physiology, etc. to be a world beater.  You almost always need numbers to find a world beater though I’m going to describe that odd winter sports thing which is an apparent exception next Wednesday.

This is becoming more and more true as sports become more and more specialized and more and more highly contested.  This isn’t the 70’s or the 80’s when things weren’t nearly as developed or hotly contested.  In modern sports in the big sports, you have hundreds or thousands of folks training just as hard as you.  In the 2000’s and going forwards, only the best of the best of the best will reach the top.  To find that one in a million or ten million athlete with the right set of genes, drive, etc. requires huge numbers going into the sport.

Now recall how I mentioned that in many countries there is a selection to go into certain sports, either as a function of culture (i.e. swimming in Australia, cycling in Europe) or being told what to do (the Communist and Socialist countries)?  And how in the US everyone pretty much feels that they can do whatever they damn well please and nobody tells us what to do, not even us?  And how our primary driver is usually money and lots of it?

Well, in addition to the presence of a billion and one small sports (skateboarding, BMX, rock climbing, lacrosse, paintball, that stupid cup stacking thing, there’s a freaking video game league now, and hundreds of others) that pull athletes into them for various reasons, the existence of the big three has a huge impact that is relevant to the topic of OL’ing per se.  Because not only is there massive tradition for these sports but there are the kinds of absurd incentives that used to be given to athletes in other countries for pursuing Olympic sports.   Along with the rest of it.

And you could easily argue that one of the reasons the US is so dominant in basketball has to do with this.  Because with such massive incentives for making it to the pros, coupled with everything else, even our top amateurs are going to be amazing.  Because even if they don’t quite have the skills to make it into the top 1%, they are still in the top 2%.  Which makes them better than anybody else in the world.  And some might argue that this makes basketball non-comparable to other sports competed internationally or Olympically that I’ve discussed previously or that aren’t professional sports (such as Olympic lifting).

Which is why I’m going to look at two non-professionals sports in the US, track and field and swimming on Monday.  Because while they don’t have the professional ‘carrot’ at the end of the road that basketball has, they are still sports that we consistently produce top performers in.  And they also explain some things about American sport along with being relevant to the issue of OL’ing.  Slowly, I promise, I’m getting there.

Read Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 18.

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