My college roommate Eric arrived home for a one-month break last Tuesday after a full year away in Sierra Leone. He didn’t call me to announce his arrival. No, that would have resulted in too much communication for his liking. He’s the type to answer a deep question with a simple nod of his head, or even more frustrating to others, a simple smirk. Instead, he texted me to let me know he had returned to the United States. His message consisted of just three words:
“What’s up, bitch?”
Eric didn’t call me until two days later. Something had occurred which was considerably more important than talking to me for the first time in a year.
“Are you watching this shellacking? MEEELLLLLOOOOOO,” he cooed. He wasn’t talking about Fab.
Carmelo Anthony was in the process of sinking 10 trifectas during the United States’ 83-point whipping of Nigeria. Basketball has always been what Eric and I talked about when he or I shied away from discussing our feelings. We coped with girl problems during college by turning on TNT’s Inside the NBA telecast, and memories of hoops were what he clung to when his father had passed away several decades too early. But this time we weren’t using basketball as a mechanism to escape the world. We were witnessing what some would call the greatest team ever assembled playing as close to flawless basketball as we had ever witnessed. We weren’t watching a basketball game so much as a group of 12 accomplished artists testing the limits of human accomplishment.
And so Eric finally felt the urge to call me. He had no choice but to discuss it with someone.
When I read Gregg Doyel’s assertion on CBS Sports that Team USA should stop using NBA players because the current group is too good, I couldn’t help but respond to him on Twitter. “Do you think Phelps should be banned from the Olympics, too,” I wrote, “and 17-year olds should swim in his place?”
Obviously my response simplified my view immensely. Being confined to 140 characters tends to do that. Phelps swims, an individual sport incredibly different from basketball. Even when he swept all eight events in which he participated at the 2008 Beijing Games, he came perilously close to losing at least twice (that I recall). If you remember, Phelps needed Jason Lezak’s best-ever freestyle leg to bail him out during the 4×100-meter freestyle relay, and he needed a spectacular finish to outlast Milorad Čavić in the 100-meter butterfly final by 0.01 seconds. Phelps was more dominant than any swimmer ever. He was also vulnerable, at least during some races.
My bigger point was that the Olympics are meant to showcase the world’s finest athletes, many pushing to break records and perform at levels we never knew existed. I could normally care less about swimming. But when the world’s eight fastest racers are in the water, side by side, challenging world records and forcing each other either to work beyond exhaustion or fall farther behind the pace, swimming matters to me deeply. I barely know anything about what a proper breast stroke looks like and I probably couldn’t swim 20 laps in a row, but greatness splashes out of that pool and through our television sets.
I would not feel the same about the Olympics if the top swimmers sat at home while second-tier performers battled each other for gold medals. The beauty of the Olympics is that we are watching the world’s best perform at their highest levels, athletes who train for years and play their sports better than anyone else in the world, and do so partially for their country. The beauty of the Olympics is that we can watch Usain Bolt sprint and legitimately call him the fastest man ever. We also consider Phelps the greatest swimmer of all-time, and we know these things because people keep records. But we also consider them truth because of how marvelous a sight it is to watch these athletes do things no other humans could possibly achieve. We root for Gabby Douglas not just because she is American, or because she is the underdog as a black person in a white sport, or because her smile could light an underground tunnel, or because she won. We root for her because once every four years we get to see all the world’s best competing in the same venue, and Douglas feared nobody and regretted nothing and reached within herself to fly through the air with a precision no other woman in the world could match. Surrounded by all the best, she was better. And if you think the Olympics are about the proper representation of one’s country, Douglas proved how many miles one can travel with a potent combination of talent and will.
The Olympics are a showcase of the world’s finest athletes, and what would that be without LeBron James? We might still watch if the best Olympic teams starred Manu Ginobili and Pau Gasol, especially us die-hard hoop heads. But the spirit of the Olympics, at least now that the ideals of amateurism have been shattered, rests in corralling the world’s best athletic performers and unleashing them in a single city to stun and to mesmerize and to represent their countries admirably and to make us understand that limits are meant to be reset.
Doyel responded to my tweet by saying in part that basketball was invented and perfected here in the United States, leaving our teams superior, which in fact is so — or at least, the invented and superior parts of his reasoning are. Basketball has not yet been perfected, like none of the other sports in the Olympics have been. Records will fall, players will become faster, and time, if we’re patient enough, will always bring someone better. That’s what the Olympics are about, at least to me, the world’s best athletes stretching their fingers closer and closer to cradling perfection.
The pursuit of perfection in basketball might sometimes lead to 83-point blowouts of Nigeria or disappointing five-point wins against Lithuania. Yet when James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant share the same court, I approach each game knowing I might witness history. Team USA probably isn’t the greatest basketball team ever. It hasn’t been great defensively. As Lithuania proved, the Americans are beatable, like Phelps was. But also like Phelps, on certain nights, for sustained stretches of time, Team USA is capable of marching closer to perfection than any team has ever done.
Whenever Eric calls me, I know it’s for something special. His latest call, I would argue, was for perfectly Olympic reasons.