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Too bad nobody thought of it sooner

Posted: Friday, September 06, 2002

Ten years ago, explaining the difference between USA basketball and the rest of the world was simple.

We had Michael Jordan.

They had guys wearing Air Jordans.

Man, how times have changed.

One night after Argentina beat the United States and ended one of the most impressive runs in sports, Yugoslavia piled on a second helping, squeezing out an 81-78 quarterfinal win Thursday night over Team NBA -- er, USA -- at the World Championships.

After the first loss, U.S. coach George Karl, who brings NBA and international experience to the job, tried to take the long view: ''There's a part of me that thinks this is a celebration of basketball.''

Absolutely.

But when he added it would be ''interesting'' to see how his team responds, the one answer Karl wasn't expecting was ''poorly.'' Stocked with second-tier NBA stars, the best this U.S. team can do now is fifth place.

Ten years ago, still angry over losing the hoops gold at the 1988 Games, the NBA sent a Dream Team to the Barcelona Olympics. For three weeks or so, the rest of the world took turns portraying the Washington Generals. They had no choice.

The only suspense after tipoff was how many foreign dignitaries would try to squeeze into the postgame photos. Angolans, Croats, Puerto Ricans, Brazilians -- it made no difference to Team USA. It treated them all like pylons at a coaching clinic, then sent each home with a parting gift.

No one who saw Angolan center Nelson Sardinha's smile after one of those poundings will ever forget it. His team, the African nations' champion three years running, had just lost 116-48. Playing against Patrick Ewing and David Robinson, Sardinha fouled out after scoring just two points.

''It was the best game of my career,'' he said, beaming. ''I took a picture with Magic Johnson after the game.''

The original Dreamers arrived in Barcelona with two objectives and achieved them both.

On the court, they crushed every opponent -- the average margin of victory was 44 points -- and did it with great style and humor. And they got the rest of the world to buy into basketball, which meant they would also buy more NBA stuff.

After having Michael, Magic & Co. beamed into the living room, what kid in Lithuania, or China, or Argentina for that matter, didn't yearn for the sneakers, jerseys and ballcaps those guys wore?

As to what the rest of the world would do with all that expensive gear, then-Dream Team coach Chuck Daly said not to worry.

''There's 183 countries and 3 billion people watching these games. And somewhere out there now is a 13-year-old who wants to be a Michael, a Magic, a Larry or a Patrick,'' he said.

Turns out Daly didn't miss by much.

Right after the 1992 Games, just as they'd always done, kids in small towns and big ones dribbled down to the corner store with a basketball in one hand, then switched to the other hand on the way home. What was different, though, is that now it went on more and more in places like Split, Croatia, and Rio de Janeiro. Enough so that like the best on the playgrounds over here, the best from over there were ready when the NBA came calling.

The No. 1 draft choice this year is 7-foot-5 Yao Ming of China. Five of the 10 rookies on the first- and second-team All-Rookie squads were non-Americans. Pau Gasol was rookie of the year. Emmanuel Ginobili, the Argentine guard who took apart the U.S. defense, is already under contract with the San Antonio Spurs.

None of that should come as news: The NBA has been scouting the rest of the world for more than two decades. What's news is how much easier it's become to find talent. And what should worry basketball people in the States is how much hungrier and hardworking so much of it has become.

The Argentines who ended the American run -- 58-0 when NBA all-star collections stand in as Team USA -- are all pros themselves, even if they played in Europe. A handful of Yugoslavs play in the NBA.

Some people will gripe those teams spent more time practicing together and that even on their best night, the Argentines and Yugoslavs combined wouldn't have had a chance against a Team USA at full strength. And Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd and Allen Iverson all begged off their patriotic duty for one reason or another, so it's possible the streak could have survived one more international tournament.

But that misses the point.

This Dream Team didn't lose to better talent. It lost to better teams. That's going to happen more and more, unless future U.S. teams learn how to play together again.

This Dream Team had no idea how to stop a pick-and-roll or a well-designed inbounds play against Argentina. They couldn't stop Yugoslavia's fourth quarter comeback. That's what you get from players who stand around on defense for a season's worth of NBA games watching middling talents trying all night to make one highlight reel move.

The NBA changed its rules last season to try to cut down on that stuff, to get back some ball movement and the idea of team play. Too bad nobody thought of it sooner.

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



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