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Saturday, August 21, 2004

Of the Judging and the Judged

Part I, The Judging

As it turned out, the South Korean Olympic federation was right, three gymastics judges goofed, and the South Korean gymnast who won the bronze actually should have won the gold. Nonetheless, probably because the protest somehow was defective and/or because there's some double secret unwritten policy that if you get awarded a gold medal in a medals ceremony it's permanent, it may be the case that the initial ruling will still stand, Paul Hamm gets his gold and the South Korean gets an oblique apology (through the admission of the Olympics' officials that three judges goofed and were suspended as a result).

The South Korean gymnast worked hard for several years to get to the pinnacle of his sport, only to have a tragic human error rob him of what was rightfully his.

Paul Hamm, meanwhile, has his gold medal, but he also has the knowledge that he really didn't win it. Three judges committed the ultimate in grossly negligent judging malpractice, so he ended up with the gold.

I don't know who should feel worse, the South Korean who lost his gold medal because of a bad blunder or Hamm, who sits there with his gold medal, knowing he didn't deserve it. Sorry, but I can't agree with the USA Coach, Bob Colarossi, who analogized what happened to a bad call in football. Coach, most football coaches will say at a post-game press conference that while the bad call probably made a difference, had their teams executed better earlier in the game the bad call shouldn't have made a difference because they already would have had the game won. But here, what more could the South Korean gymnast have done? He lost purely because judges did their math wrong. Sorry, Coach, and sorry, Paul Hamm, but the medal is tainted.

Judged sports -- human error in gymnastics and the potential for computer error in boxing. Who needs them?

Part II, The Judged

USA Basketball fell today to the Lithuanians, 94-90.

Which makes me ask the question, are there two different types of basketball in the world now? It's clear that the Europeans and South Americans aren't necessarily part of the fittest in terms of the American game, because many of them don't make NBA teams or, if they do, do not star. But what about the international game? Let's say, for example, we changed the NBA rules next year to make them purely international rules. And let's say you put the national teams in from all of the countries currently in the Olympics? Or, better yet, the champions of the leagues in Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey and Israel? What would happen in that league? Say it was a 40-game season? An 80-game season?

Would the Americans win that league? Would they bang well enough? Would they shoot well enough? Defend well enough?

Watching Olympic basketball over the past few weeks makes you wonder, doesn't it? On the one hand, the best American players aren't here, the ones who are haven't played together for that long, the American squad isn't well-constructed for the international game. We know all that. My bet is that if you changed the American game to be an international game, there wouldn't be so many slashers in the NBA, and the fundamentals might get better. But I'm not totally sure any of the European league champions would win more than half of their games in the NBA, even under international rules.

That said, at the outset of the games I said that I couldn't think of 3 teams that could beat the US in the Olympics. So far, two have -- Puerto Rico and Lithuania. Could Serbia-Montenegro? Spain with Pau Gasol? Argentia with Manu Ginobli and Juan "Pepe" Sanchez? Sure they can. Nothing surprises the U.S. hoop fan anymore. Not winning the gold is a distinct possibility. Shooting under 20% from behind a 3-point arc that is 3 feet closer to the bucket than in the NBA leaves U.S. fans with dropped jaws. In the words of a former tennis champion whose TV show now garners a 0.0 Nielsen rating, "you cannot be serious." But look it up, it is so.

Which is fine with me. The NBA product as it now stands is frequently unwatchable, as players seem more motivated by appearing on the SportsCenter highlights than in passing to an open teammate or hitting the open jumper. There's an intensity about the Olympic games, at least in the other countries' teams, that you wish you could see day-in and day-out in the NBA, the way you did when the Celtics battled with the 76ers, when those two battled with the Knicks, when the Celtics battled with the Lakers and even when Detroit's Nasty Boys battled with everyone.

Perhaps the NBA will wake up and use these games as a means to fine-tune its product. But, most likely, the NBA won't do anything, and will chalk up this Olympic performance to an aberration, to the fact that the best players begged off for a variety of reasons, to the fact that they just cannot be intellectually honest about the quality of their productions. Their justification: we have the best basketball players in the world, and the fans still play top dollar and come to the games in droves.

But that would be a big mistake.


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