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Most unpopular athletes in Athens

Posted: Thursday, August 19, 2004

The U.S. men's basketball team is getting slammed from all sides.

These Dream Team impostors are jeered in Athens bars by Americans, booed in the arena by Greeks and the rest of the world, despised back home by people fed up watching their selfish ways on TV.

Complaining right in their faces is coach Larry Brown, who's beside himself between yelling at them, trying to cajole them into playing like a team, and ripping them for lack of effort.

This is a collection of players who offend basketball purists by insisting on playing one-on-one, schoolyard-style. More than that, they've become a focal point for some of the attitudes that critics find most offensive about pro athletes.

It's gotten so bad, after the lopsided loss to Puerto Rico and the squeaky victory over Greece, that angry U.S. basketball fans are hoping the Americans will get their comeuppance in these games by getting shut out of the medal round. Sports talk radio shows at WFAN in New York have been besieged by callers saying this team represents the NBA at its worst. It's the same 3,000 miles away at KNBR in San Francisco and at radio stations in between.

''It's an international incident,'' KNBR producer Troy Clardy said. ''If they're talking Olympics, they're talking hoops. Everybody who called after the Puerto Rico game was saying this team is garbage, a fraud team from a fraud league.''

Here's a small sampling of e-mails spelling and identity count less than the passion of the message that have come my way the past few days:

From Dean H. in Puyallup, Wash.: ''THESE ... NBA PLAYERS are an EMBARASMENT (sic) TO OUR COUNTRY!!!!!!!!!!

From Rick A. in New Jersey: ''The NBA players of today do not have the concept of 'TEAM' as did the first 'Dream' Team. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and the rest all understood things like TEAM, DEFENSE, PASSING. It was not important who scored, just that someone did and that the team won.''

From C. Newton (no city): ''We have guys on this team with multimillion dollar contracts that are struggling to hit free throws, to make what might as well be high school three pointers, and show as much enthusiasm as a teenage boy at a Tupperware party. I can't stand to watch this team continue to play with such a lack of desire.''

From Jeff T. in Oceanside, Calif.: ''On the night of the opening ceremony ... all our athletes looked awed and amazed as they should except the arrogant basketballers, who strutted as if they were above it all. It embarrasses all Americans, not that they would lose, but that they would do so only from selfish conceit.''

Anyone see a theme running through these comments?

Fans have been getting more and more put off over the years by the disppearance of basic skills and team play in the NBA and a simultaneous surge of young players who think the game is all about dunks, sneaker deals and $100 million contracts.

Donnie Nelson, the general manager of the Dallas Mavericks who has been a longtime participant in international basketball, is in Athens as an assistant coach for Lithuania and watching with little surprise as the American team struggles.

''This (U.S.) team and this group of coaches shouldn't take the bullet for our lack of development,'' Nelson said. ''Other countries have a lot less in the way of emphasis on the sport, the numbers of athletes that gravitate to the sport, money, educational periodicals and tapes. So there shouldn't be any reason that our guys are not capable of doing certain things.

''We've been seeing this for a long time, and again, there isn't a better teacher in basketball than Larry Brown. But you've got to have receptive students in order for a team to be effective. ... You can't just shuttle out gear, and have the best Nikes, and not be able to shoot a jump shot.''

That's exactly what's happening. Nobody on this so-called Dream Team is an outside shooter. They drive hard, and often enough drive into a wall of defenders. What works at home doesn't work against zones in the wide, trapezoidal three-second lane that's used in international ball.

All the basketball lessons they missed by not playing in college, or not staying in college very long, are showing up here in mistakes.

Sure, the world has caught up since the days when they were awed by the original Dream Team at Barcelona a dozen years ago. But the sad truth exposed in these Olympics is that NBA-style, American ball corrupted more and more each year has degenerated into a schoolyard affair.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org.



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