Larry Brown has a problem, which means the NBA does, too. With less than two weeks left before the league's reputation goes up for grabs, too little of what the coach tells his dozen millionaires is getting through.
Brown wants Team USA to protect the basketball, use the clock, defend every possession and be prepared to cover each other's backs every time a breakdown occurs. And that's when he's not scolding somebody for showing up late. In short, he wants them to play exactly the way his Detroit Pistons did as a team to beat a more talented Lakers squad in the NBA Finals barely two months ago.
So how come nobody on the selection committee at USA Basketball (and the NBA suits hooked up via conference call) thought of it sooner:
Why not just send the Pistons to Athens? Or, for that matter, whoever the league champion is, to wherever the Olympics are being played every four years?
For starters, think how many ulcers Brown would have been spared this time around. It used to be the rest of the world had something to learn from the NBA. Brown is one of the few people smart enough to know that now it's the other way around.
Catch Detroit in action and watch how they spread the floor, move the ball, make mid-range jumpers when they have to and knock players on their cans when it's necessary. What you're watching is a team playing the international style with barely enough flash to meet the NBA's minimum requirements. And if everybody in the league played that way, pro basketball would be a lot less painful to watch.
Of course, Brown had an entire season to put his stamp on the Pistons. And trying to teach another subset of the MTV generation to play ''old school'' basketball in the course of a couple of weeks and a handful of exhibition games is wearing the poor man out. This pre-Olympic walkthrough is fast becoming a race to see whether he runs out of time or aspirin first.
Before the tour began, most of Brown's players thought the only place anybody still played the game that way was on ESPN Classic. And while they might own ''throwback'' jerseys, the truth is, most of them wouldn't think of throwing the ball back out for a better shot if their lives depended on it.
Lest we forget: the NBA most nights, anyway is all about throwing down.
Which is an even better reason to send the Pistons.
Nobody faints at the sight of ''USA'' on the jerseys anymore. And the rest of the world has satellite dishes and videotape machines, too.
They can tune into the ''association'' any night and see for themselves it's strength and weaknesses, and adapt their game accordingly. They're used to the arc being wider, the 3-point line being closer and the quirky officiating. They know how a zone gums up the works against teams who don't share the ball with any particular purpose. They know how few guys can consistently make jump shots, who's selfish and who isn't, who always slacks off on defense and who never does.
That's why Italy borrowed a page from it's national soccer team's playbook and packed the defense around the goal so tightly that it would have been a neat trick for an anchovy to slip through, let alone Tim Duncan. And won by 17.
It's why Germany created just as many good scoring opportunities for Dirk Nowitzki as the Dallas Mavericks manage any night of the week, even though everybody on Team USA knew from firsthand experience where the ball was going and how often their fellow All-Star was likely to miss. And for all that, the Americans still didn't squeak by until Allen Iverson's desperation heave hit the net just ahead of the buzzer.
Think the Pistons would have had those kinds of problems? Not.
Granted, not every team would slide into the Olympic mold as easily as Detroit. Rip Hamilton proved in the Finals that the only place he can't hit a jumper from is the bench. Unfortunately, he's not on Team USA because nobody on the selection committee thought to call him until Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, etc., already hung up on them.
Rasheed Wallace isn't on Team USA, either, though he's the ideal combination of big man and spot-up shooter that Brown desperately needs. Ditto for an intimidating shot-blocker like Ben Wallace, a point-guard who can shoot AND distribute like Chauncey Billups, and a dependable stopper whose versatile enough to play a few spots on floor, a la Tayshaun Prince.
And most important, all the names above are already a team. Objections?
The NBA season is already too long; players who make a commitment to their country often wind up hurt at considerable cost to their employers; and then there's the sticky business of what to do with free agents and the internationals dotted on every NBA roster.
The answers, in order: The Olympics only happen once every four years; owners can learn to make sacrifices, too; free agents can, too, if they like, and foreign-born players can only represent their country of origin.
That leaves room for some substitutions, which in the case of the Pistons would mean swapping Darko Milicic (Serbia-Montenegro) for say, Tim Duncan. Go ahead, try and find a general manager who wouldn't make that deal.
USA Basketball's approach since the NBA came aboard in 1992 is to select a core of nine All-Stars and supplement players as needed, then set up a pre-Olympic crash course, and hope the team comes together at the finish line.
But hoping may not get it done this time around.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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