The fortunes of the Australian mens and womens basketball teams at the Tokyo Olympics last year truly demonstrates how timing is everything.
Liz Cambage got herself into trouble (we’re still waiting to find out exactly what happened that lead her to quit the team before she was kicked out) on the eve of the Games and the Opals – always short odds for a medal and with Team USA considered the only genuine obstacle for gold – crashed out in the quarter finals on the back of some clearly out of sorts performances.
Cambage was the best player on the team but obviously not the best teammate. Still, when your greatest offensive weapon steps out of line and bails on the team just as the tournament is about to commence it requires a level of readjustment that time simply didn’t allow.
The Opals played hard but the chemistry and flow to their game was gone. Chemistry is hard enough to build in national teams that are lucky to play together once a year, so off-court indiscretions are doubly destructive.
On the other hand, Ben Simmons withdrew from the side about a month earlier and hadn’t even joined the team yet due to his participation in the NBA playoffs. His withdrawal was without incident and wasn’t completely surprising since he did the same thing prior to Rio in 2016.
While it was still relatively late notice, the Boomers had more time to adjust their plans and far more practise time as a unit without Ben to gel before the Games.
The result was the Boomers first ever Olympic medal, a bronze. With Patty Mills leading the way, the Aussie men were a tight, unified machine that achieved more than anyone expected them to, especially with Simmons missing.
By contrast, the eleventh hour departure/dismissal of Cambage left the Opals rattled.
When we consider the behaviour of Simmons and Cambage across their careers – especially since the Olympics – it must be said that both sides are actually better off without such disruptive, unreliable stars on their teams.
Simmons sat out the entire NBA season, refusing to play for the 76ers and then the Nets following a mid-season trade.
Cambage – despite apparently being involved with an altercation with members of the Nigerian team and breaching covid protocols – has since done nothing but criticise the Opals program and has taken no responsibility for her own behaviour. She has hidden behind “mental health” to justify her actions but that feels like a thin excuse from someone who jumped before she was pushed.
The Cambage episode played a role in the retirement of Jenna O’Hea, one of Australia’s most accomplished and respected basketballers. At 34, O’Hea’s retirement was coming sooner rather than later anyway, but for it to be accelerated by the toxic likes of Liz Cambage is quite sad. It was an anticlimactic end to a sensational career, one the former Opals captain should be deeply proud of.
It’s a shame because Cambage and Simmons are hugely talented players but their attitudes are pathetic. Selfish, entitled with an arrogant belief they can do no wrong. No humility, no team spirit. With the right attitude they would be a huge boost to the Opals and Boomers teams respectively.
But culture plays a big part of success and these two have shown themselves to be quick to put themselves above the team. This is counterproductive and brings negativity and resentment to a team environment.
By contrast, look at the way the Boomers team played. Hard-nosed and together, lead by a incredible performance across the tournament by Patty Mills, a man visibly driven to win a medal for his country. He represented everything we have come to expect from our Olympians. He poured his heart and soul into the team and played at an elite level, scoring 42 points in the bronze medal game lead Australia to victory over Slovenia.
More important was the celebration from the whole team. It was obvious the culture within that team was strong and positive, grounded in a unified determination to succeed. Would that culture have developed to such a level with the distractions of a Ben Simmons in the mix? Maybe, but it seems unlikely unless Simmons would “buy in” the way the rest of the squad did.
Timing truly is everything, and how Australia’s basketballers faired at Tokyo proves this. The men had time to overcome Simmons withdrawal but the Opals were not afforded the same luxury. The result was underachievement on their part and overachievement for the Boomers. The result was that successful teams can afford to lose talented players if they have time to adjust, and in the end the Boomers didn’t need Simmons and flourished without him.
Regardless of the timing, culture is important for a successful team and regardless of talent, if I had to build a team I’d want players who want to be there, want to work together and want to succeed. Give me Patty Mills and Jenna O’Hea over Ben Simmons and Liz Cambage any day.
Mills and O’Hea are perfect examples of how we should want our sporting role models to behave. Those two have tremendous work ethic, great attitudes and a ton of class.
The Cambage’s and Simmons’ of the world should take note. Because the sooner toxic teammates are shown the door, the better.