Just what will be the USA Basketball's claim to fame?

Posted: Tuesday, September 19, 2000

SYDNEY, So, just who's Dream is this anyway, Vince McMahon's?

This was going to be a different U.S. men's basketball team from the start - less charisma, fewer commercials. It was going to be ladled with America's reputation for being invincible, but little on its record to have earned it.

Really, how many people from Brisbane have ever heard of Vin Baker? What exactly is the international attraction of Shareef Abdur-Rahim, except, you know, the name? Think Sydneysiders are stalking the team's hotel to snap pictures of Allan Houston?

This team was going to have to do something unique in Sydney to fill an image void as large as the ocean it crossed to get to the 2000 Olympics. They were going to have to create themselves, give locals a reason to take their eyes off the pool for a while, to make anyone care, actually.

And the direction they seem to have taken is less than pretty, although geographically appropriate, a sort of Australian rules basketball, where the only thing better than contact is contact when the ref isn't looking. They're trying to play the heavy in Sydney, the biggest kid in the class who feels some sad need to keep telling you how tough he is.

A few times leading into the Olympic tournament, the U.S. played what they would say was a physical game and what the guys on the other end of the shoves and slaps might call cheap. In a pre-Olympic exhibition last week, Vince Carter tackled an Australia player, a two-point take down that immediately branded him and broke his team's tenuous image.

"Mean Team,'' said the headline the following day in the Sydney Telegraph. And "boo,'' said locals when they have seen Carter since.

Carter is quickly becoming the villain of the Sydney Games, the anti-Thorpedo who has shot down any chance this U.S. team had of macthing the popularity of those with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson.

Fans booed again when Carter was introduced Tuesday and were even louder when he got his elbow up into Alessandro Abbio's neck near the end of the game.

"I don't know why people pick on me,'' Carter said after the U.S.' 93-61 win over Italy at The Dome in Sydney's Olympic Park. "I play to have fun. The game to me is physical and it's intense. You've got to do what you've got to do to win.''

Maybe, but none of the previous American teams of NBA stars have had to do what these guys are doing.

There was that incident with Barkley in Barcelona, but that was just coincidence. With him, that could have happened anywhere - a restaurant, a men's room, a convent.

But this team is turning rough play into an emblem.

And it has not only been less appealing to international fans, but also less successful. Because both of their games in pool play so far have been closer than than the bloated scores indicate.

Like Tuesday. While the Americans were busy trying to figure out how to get Italy in a full-Nelson, the Italians had put themselves right in the game for a while.

The U.S. led by only one point with four minutes to go in the first half, and the way Italy was shooting three-pointers, Amererica's 10-point halftime lead seemed vulnerable. It wasn't, of course. The U.S. scored 23 of the first 30 points to start the second half and were up 26 before the 12-minute mark.

Talent took over. So did the press America used to turn its first game of the tournament into a joke, too. They scored five baskets within six minutes off turnovers and at one point scored eight out of 10 points on fast breaks, including three dunks.

"The USA is much stronger than us, but when you play the game, you just play the game,'' said Italy's Andrea Meneghin. "You think, I'm on the same level, you play for fun. After the first five minutes of the second half, I lose my concentration and say we have no possibility to play with the Dream Team.''

A Dream Team, no. But opponents have been able to play with these guys so far.

Two teams that wouldn't make the field of 64 in the NCAA Championships stayed within a dreamer's distance for a half. Neither one was close to winning. Italy never even led, although it did have five possessions in the first half when one shot could have put them ahead, but missed all six of them. Still, they were closer than they should have been for longer than they should have been.

That happened ocassionally to the NBA all-star teams we've sent to previous Olympics, it's just that nobody remembers. People are so delirious over Jordan, they think every game he played he won by 60 points.

And maybe this team will turn around what has been a rough start in Sydney, will not only start playing better, but behaving better. Maybe they'll find the heroic image their predecessors carried through past Olympics.

Or maybe they'll just keep pushing their way to the top and not worry about what anyone else thinks.

"No matter how much we win by, we're still going to be compared to the other teams,'' said Steve Smith, who has an idea how many fans at the Dome have been rooting for his team. "I'd say it's 20 percent - family and friends. Everyone else is against us, just wanting us to fail.''

But that's the role they seem to have chosen. And sometimes you have to take the bad with being the bad guy.

They're not imaging the negative reaction, either, not playing the poor victims here. There's some people rooting against them, if only because they're bored with the 30-point wins and walk-over gold medals.

There were the requisite "USA,'' chants at The Dome Tuesday, a few flags in the crowd. But the building was louder when the Italians pulled close than when the U.S. was pulling away. And there was some extra noise when Carter was pulling his public-enemy routine.

It doesn't matter. It doesn't bother me,'' said Carter, who had 13 points in 20 minutes to lead the Americans. "Like my mother says, you're not going to impress everybody. You can be an angel walking a straight line and somebody's going to not like you.''

He seems to be working pretty hard to prove his mother right.

Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera can be reached at 652-0352 after Oct. 8.



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