In 1990, at age 20, I visited communist Leningrad as an exchange student. About a month into the trip, I was nursing a beer at a nightclub when one of my fellow students suddenly nudged me in the ribs. “Watch this,” he said as he held his blue passport over his head. Within five minutes our table was surrounded by beautiful women. America, I learned back then, was a magic word in some parts of the world. America had allure.
Not long after that, America chose its Dream Team in preparation for the Barcelona Olympics. Even behind the (recently fallen) Iron Curtain, the world was enthralled with the spectacle of the Greatest Team Ever. I was in a Russian bar for the legendary debut thrashing of Angola, a 116-48 victory, and the whole place – remember, this was in the country that had won the basketball gold four years before – was howling with delight. I remember translating Charles Barkley’s infamous post-game explanation for why he’d viciously elbowed poor Angolan player Herlander Coimbra. “He says,” I told the crowd, “that he didn’t know if the guy had a spear.” The Russians roared with approval. Back then, even when we were being assholes, we were charming.
Fast-forward to 2012. Heading into the final game, America’s Dream Team seemed better, possibly, than its 1992 predecessor. But instead of celebrating the deadly combo of LeBron James/Kevin Durant/Kobe Bryant, fans everywhere actively rooted against the Americans this year. Here at home, the Internet teemed with posts with titles like “Am I a terrorist for wanting the U.S. basketball team to lose?” The self-hating angst of American hoops fans came mainly because the NBA itself has been Dream Team-ized, with owners and free-agent players scheming to create four or five supersquads stacked with all-stars, leaving the other 25 teams to play the Angola/Washington Generals role.
But elsewhere, the hatred was more complicated. In 1992, America wasn’t always the villain. We were a big, stupid, cheerful people that gave the world MTV, rap music and The Karate Kid, while our chief ideological rivals, the Russians, mostly exported clinical depression, political jailings and atrocious consumer goods. Now we stand alone as a hegemonic superpower that force-feeds the world computer-generated pop music and soulless effects-driven movies. We still represent freedom, but it’s mainly the freedom to make sickeningly huge sums of money in a world where the median income is basically ass.
So this year, when LeBron and KD and Carmelo rained threes and monster dunks on hapless opponents, fans rooted like mad for this team to lose. We have become the 1980 Soviet hockey team, awesome but hateable, the world officially ready to cheer our defeats. Maybe Kobe is right, and this 2012 team could have beaten the original Dream Team on the court. But off the court, it wasn’t even close.
This is from the August 30th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.