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Is Iverson the answer for America?

Posted: Tuesday, August 12, 2003

A league with an image problem lets the poster boy for selfishness take charge of its campaign to win back respectability.

That's thinking so far outside the box it just might work.

The story of how Allen Iverson wound up running Team NBA er, USA is too long and involved to recount in full here. Suffice it to say that his former coach, Larry Brown, was as persuasive as he needed to be and that Iverson's bosses at the NBA and USA Basketball moved a lot farther to find common ground than Iverson did.

''I'm happy I was able to make this team without having to cut my hair off and laser my tattoos off, and wear a suit and all that, and stop hanging with the people who love me,'' Iverson said Sunday at a small college gym in Manhattan, where he and his teammates held their first practice in preparation for an Olympic qualifying tournament later this month in Puerto Rico.

''I'm just happy that I was accepted and picked to be on this team because it shows how far I've been in my career,'' he added.

Not to take anything away from Iverson, who's actually changed very little since coming into the league as the No. 1 overall pick of the 1996 draft; what his selection more likely shows is how far the mighty have fallen and how far USA Basketball will venture to see it climb back to the top.

There was a time, as recently as last fall, that the skinny, tattoo-covered 76ers guard had a better chance of seeing his face on a $5 bill than in the middle of the U.S. national team picture. His country didn't need him. Past U.S. teams had lost more than a few times in international tournaments, but that hadn't happened, ever, to a team made up of NBA players.

Along with a 58-0 record, that changed at last year's World Championships in Indianapolis. First Argentina, then eventual champion Yugoslavia and finally even Spain Spain! sent Team NBA spiraling toward a sixth-place finish in a 16-team field.

Finding out the rest of the world could play was nothing like the surprise it seemed at that moment. The NBA had bulked up on foreign talent long enough to know that. It had been almost a dozen years since commissioner David Stern unveiled the original Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics and some of the kids who grew up overseas and wanted to be like Mike and Magic and Larry for that matter turned out to be very serviceable pros.

Many more wound up in Europe than the NBA, but give the Yugoslavs and Argentines a little incentive and some extra practice time, then match them against a dozen second-tier American pros and the U.S. recipe for world dominance falls flatter than a poorly prepared souffle.

Some people griped that nothing the rest of the world did would have made a difference against Team USA at full strength. And to be fair, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd and Iverson all begged off their patriotic duty for one reason or another.

O'Neal and Bryant have done so again, but not Duncan, Kidd or Iverson. And the rest of the squad was selected with an eye toward compatibility as much as athletic ability this time around. So while there is plenty of firepower Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter there are also workhorses like Elton Brand and versatile talents like Richard Jefferson and Jermaine O'Neal willing to fill whatever role is necessary.

Give the suits at USA Basketball credit for learning a lesson. Last fall's version of the Dream Team didn't lose to better talent, but to better teams.

The NBA team that was slapped together for the occasion and entrusted to just-fired Milwaukee coach George Karl wasn't just poorly prepared. It was used to playing the stand-around, I-dunk-then-you-dunk style that passes for pro basketball too many nights in an 82-game regular season.

It was no coincidence the U.S. squad failed to recognize, let alone stop, a well-designed inbounds play against Argentina, or muster enough moxie to disrupt the fourth-quarter tear Yugoslavia used to knock off the Americans.

That's where Iverson & Co. come in. There will be only a little more prep time for this team than the last one, but the talent is better and meshing it will be easier. Iverson might have a reputation for playing selfishly, but Brown is gambling that a U.S. team with him on the floor won't lack for smarts or energy.

And anybody who's watched Iverson play in an All-Star game knows how devoted he is to playing the right way when playing with people he respects.

''It's so easy playing with Jason Kidd. It's so easy playing with Tim Duncan,'' Iverson said. ''All you've got to do is play basketball, you never have to press and feel you have to put it all on yourself. You just let the game come to you.

''If one of those guys gets going, you get him the ball. If I'm going,'' said Iverson in what could be a preview of things to come, ''they'll do the same for me.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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