OKC star Steve Adams' reported explanation as to why he has not made himself available for selection to the New Zealand basketball team has been well covered in the New Zealand media. The main features of his explanation can be found in a couple of articles here and here.
The thrust of his reasoning seems to be a sense that he has more loyalty to his NBA franchise that to the national side. Rather than delve too deeply into Adams’ logic, it’s worth reflecting on the idea of representing your country. First, most citizens have a sense of attachment to their country. There are those who are born here, those who migrated here and those who come her as refugees. Part of being a New Zealander is a sense of attachment to the country. You don’t have to have it, but it’s common enough – FIFA World cup fan zones around the world proved that. And we all recall the huge number of New Zealanders who became Tall Black supporters and watcher the team with a keen eye during their wonderful run at the 2002 World Championships.
All our national sports teams attract support with varying levels of enthusiasm. What is relevant in sport changes over time as do our preferences. Who would have forecast that the national women’s rugby, rugby league and netball teams would one day, dominate the evening sports news, as they did on tonight’s TV news.
The story of the Warriors women’s rugby league team was compelling. Single mothers, women who came back to the game after starting families, one woman who juggles training and looking after her child who has a serious medical condition. Not one of those women had a ‘free ride’ to achieving their dream of playing as a paid player.
Many, many New Zealand sports representatives pay to play for New Zealand. Few have access to the big money of TV rights, commercial sponsorship or franchise salaries. It is not for us to judge who has the hardest or easiest road to the top. Countless New Zealand athletes are supported by family and friends who believe in their dreams. Paying your way as a junior is the rule not the exception. And for many sports you continue to pay even as a full international.
So that leaves us (for team sports) to ask whether or not representing your country is worthy goal. Here are some stories that might help answer. Many gold medalists explain their tears on the dais while their national anthem plays, as a celebration of what it took to get there. All those hours of training and sacrifice to be recognised as the best in the world.
Larry Brown the great NCAA and pro basketball coach once said “You have to do something in your life that is honorable and not cowardly if you are to live in peace with yourself.” He coached the USA at the 2004 Olympics. When he was 19, Le Bron James rode the bench for most of those Games and the team won only bronze.”I failed to understand how big the Olympics were” said James.
At the 2012 Games, US track team member Lopez Lomong had come from a refugee background. He told the New York Times:
"As a ‘Lost Boy’ of Sudan, having spent 10 years of my life in a Kenyan refugee camp before coming to America at the age of 16, I felt lost without a country. I never identified with any flag; instead, I was an outcast from a country at war.
In 2000, while a refugee, I saw Michael Johnson run the 400 meters in the Olympics. My world was shaken when he shed a tear during the playing of the national anthem. I realized that he didn’t run for himself or his own glory, but rather represented a country that he was proud of.” (NY Times, 27 July 2012)
There’s more to representing your country than whether you had your bills paid for you.