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Les Bleus at the Olympics

Not all National Basketball Teams are equal before the Olympics. Americans have never known Olympic Games without Team USA.There is never any question about the team being there... only about who will be on the team, and occasionally about which medal the team will take. Basketball was born in the USA, and the best players have always come from the USA.

All Spurs! France's Tony Parker drives on Australia's Patty Mills

James Naismith invented the game in 1891, with peach baskets, a soccer ball, and nine players on a side. Less than fifteen years later, it was a demonstration sport at the 1904 Olympics. The game's spread was stunted a bit by a little thing called World War One... The first European championships were held in 1935, and the game became a permanent Olympic event in 1936.

Besides having the longest basketball tradition, Team USA also benefits from the fact that it draws on a very large population. Only China, among the world's sports powers, has a larger base... and let's face it, China is still a developing nation on a "per capita" basis. Basketball may be the national religion in Lithuania (and Arvidas is its prophet!), but however fervent the Green may be -- and believe me, they are FERVENT, they are only one one-hundredth of America's population.

The World Championships are usually won by Team USA, but the tournament as a whole is usually dominated by European teams. While America is the basketball nation, Europe is the basketball continent. Which is a really raw deal, when it comes to participating in the Olympics!

Back in the Middle Ages, the Gods of Olympia decided that athletes for the Games would be chosen by country and by "region": the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania. It's a great system for Australia, more or less guaranteed a permanent slot in every event. Pretty good deal for Asian and African athletes, too, since the overall competition in their regions is relatively weak. It's not a bad system for "Americans" (from both Western Hemisphere continents), again because the overall density of top-level athletes is fairly low.

It's a really bad system for Europe. Compare The Americas and Europe: The USA is always automatically qualified, because of previous results (Olympic and/or World Championships), so powerhouses Brazil and Argentina need only worry about Puerto Rico and Canada... In Europe, there are more than a dozen national teams at or above that level.

As a result, Europeans perceive attaining the Olympics as the highlight of a career... while Australians must want more -- reaching the Olympics is no problem for them.

Tony Parker said the other day that leading the French National Team to the Olympics was the most important thing he had done in his career. Personally, I don't see that as a good sign for what is yet to come.

How do these guys raise their adrenalin yet another notch, to go for a medal? Coaching at the highest level is far more a matter of getting all the players' heads oriented in the right direction, than of any technical / tactical expertise. Gregg Popovich is a perfect example. I wish I were confident that French Head Coach Vincent Collet was as good as Pop... but I'm not...

In their last preparation game, against Australia five days ago, the French Team was flat. It was the only time the whole team was available -- Nico Batum's insurance problems had kept him from all contact work until then -- so it was the last occasion to put it all together. They did not. I'm worried.

The Roster:

Tony Parker: All-Star NBA point guard. Capable of carrying a game all by himself. The heart of the team... and also its Achilles' Heel. While Tony's San Antonio Spurs teammate Boris Diaw was with the team despite not being allowed to practice because of his own insurance hassles, Tony was in a New York night club getting a shard of glass in his eye during a dust-up between gangsta rappers. No, New York is not in France, is nowhere near the National Team's training site. Why was Tony not with the team? Because Tony is Tony...

Nando de Colo: The new Spurs recruit has been by far the steadiest contributor during preparation. He has run the game well at the point, and shot effectively from the n° 2 slot.

Yannick Bokolo: Quick, and physically powerful combo guard. Decent shooter and excellent defender. Doesn't always make the best decisions.

Fabien Causeur: Lefty shooting guard. "French Player of the Year" in the last French championship season. Can shoot the lights out when he's hot, but so far seems a bit timid on the National Team.

Mickaël Gelabale: Plays 2 or 3. Good shooter and great jumper. When Mike is "on", he is incredible. And then, too... he can completely disappear...

Nicolas Batum: Swings between the 2 and the 3. Good at everything: shooting, defense, boards, ... Unstoppable on the fast break. Nico's condition -- physical and mental -- is completely unknown, since he was not allowed to participate in practice until the very last moment, due to insurance problems with his NBA team, Portland.

Yakhouba Diawara: Plays 3 or 4. Decent shooter, but his main job is Enforcer. Very physical, on defense and on the boards.

Florent Pietrus: Power forward. Ultra-defender, like his younger brother Mickaël (formerly of the Boston Celtics and now looking for a club). Excellent rebounder. Not so great on the offensive end.

Boris Diaw: If Tony is the heart of the team, Boris is its soul. Team Captain in title and in fact. Plays both forward positions... but if need be he can also play center. Or shooting guard. Maybe point guard...

Ali Traoré: Center. "Golden Hands" is ambidextrous, unpredictable and unstoppable on attack. The worry is that he often costs even more on defense than he brings on offense.

Ronny Turiaf: Center. Recently got an NBA ring with the Miami Heat... although I'm not sure he ever set foot on the court during the Finals against OKC. Transferred last week to the LA Clippers, Ronny is solid and physical, but limited technically and challenged vertically. If desire were enough to be great, Ronny would be great...

Kevin Seraphin: Center. Mr K had a breakout Euro Champioship in Lithuania last year. Over the three weeks, he went from end-of-the-bench to starting five. Then he spent the first part of his NBA Washington Wizards season (under Coach Flip Saunders) back on the bench. Saunders was fired, replaced by Randy Wittman, who gave Kevin minutes. The affable young man responded with constantly rising stats, to finish the season with a series of double-doubles. He could be a key...

* * * * * * *

It's a good team. Talent and depth. Not a lot of height, but not too bad.

I think it will be a question of what their mental condition is. They had a ridiculously perturbed "preparation", with major players absent for insurance reasons (Diaw and Batum) and their leader almost losing an eye in a stupid bar fight.

They have been aiming for London for years... and I fear that they will be satisfied with the Olympic slogan: "The important thing is to participate."