NBA Olympians: Nobody Better Anywhere


August 23, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

The United States is pretty much having its way these days. Put in our new world order (I think it was fries and a Big Mac). Got that Pax Americana working. We even get our own favorite Soviet leader back. Talk about your coups. Here's how this one went: A vacationing Gorby goes out for the paper, gets deposed on the way, and by the time he's finished reading the box scores, he's the head guy again.

But there is one area where the U.S. of A. is faltering. Maybe you missed it, but the U.S. basketball team just got clobbered in the Pan Am games. Maybe you missed this, too, but the U.S. basketball team, which used to always win, now routinely gets bounced.

The U.S. national teams have not won a major championship since the '86 World Games, having lost in the '87 Pan Ams, the '88 Olympics, the '90 Goodwill Games, the '90 World Games, the '91 Pan Ams.

We've got missiles that will go to a corner, stop at the red light and then turn left before landing in some dictator's dining room, but we can't seem to find anyone who can bury the three. Since basketball was invented here, these losses are pretty much an embarrassment. Since Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson were invented here, they're pretty unbelievable.

But come next year at the Barcelona Olympics, that will all change. School is out. The United States has called on the NBA, a satin-shorts version of the cavalry, and, believe me, circling the wagons won't be a good enough defense. These are the best players in the world. These are the best players who ever strapped on a very expensive, star-endorsed, sometimes-pumped-up, often-striped sneaker.

Let's go to the roster, as it now appears to be composed: Magic, Jordan, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Larry Bird, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen and John Stockton. No salary cap on this team. There will be two more players named, at least one of them a collegian. To say that this team is unbeatable is to say that Jordan can jump.

Personally, I love it. Not for the reasons the USA Basketball people do. They're just tired of losing. I'm tired of the last vestiges of amateur elitism that kept the pros out to begin with. If the best sprinters in the world are running and the best swimmers are swimming, why shouldn't the best hoopsters be hooping?

There is nothing holy about college kids and certainly not about the college game. For those who say you should give the kids a chance, please note that of the 10 named players, only three made the Olympics while in college (David Robinson was in the Navy). Besides, the kids still get the other international games.

The most reasoned argument against the change is that it won't be any fun to see the NBA players beat Bermuda, 154-6. And it won't be much more fun to see them crush Yugoslavia for the gold (although, you watch, they'll put up a better fight than you think). But the argument for change is even more compelling, and it's put forth by the Soviets and the Yugoslavians and the other international basketball powers. They want the NBA players. They want to compete against them. They want the chance to learn from them and -- don't laugh -- to see if they can eventually catch up to them. They want to play the best. Isn't that the idea?

It is interesting, too, how the best got put together. The thinking was that the NBA guys were too rich, too pampered, too blase to spend their off-season at some hokey, which is to say non-paying, event. They didn't count on Magic Johnson or Charles Barkley, two guys for whom enthusiasm is a 24-hour-a-day condition. They loved this idea.

Some others didn't, particularly Michael Jordan, who played on the gold-medal '84 team. He likes to play golf in the off-season instead of playing on what will amount to a superstar rock tour. But Magic leaned on him, and Barkley leaned on him, which could hurt a guy, and I bet his agent leaned on him, too. How would it look if all the greatest players in the world -- and the biggest endorsers -- were playing on the world stage and Jordan said he couldn't be bothered? As Mr. Robinson might say, can you spell backlash? Be like Mike?

So, Jordan had to play, and Bird, who will be 35 then, was talked into it, too, although I don't think you can count on his body holding up. He won't be one of the top 12 American players anymore, but Magic and Bird, along with Dr. J, virtually re-invented the modern game. He belongs.

Who would the other players be? The leading collegian has to be Shaquille O'Neal, who decided not to play in the Pan Am Games. He's got a huge body and a huge game, both of which count in international ball. That has been part of the problem. The U.S. kids are just kids playing against men. Another part is that the college players have never adapted to the three-point-based international game. The pros can adapt, but, more important, everyone will have to adapt to them.

As for the other pro, I'd want Dennis Rodman as a defensive stopper. Or you could go with either Clyde Drexler or Kevin Johnson as another guard. Heck, you could add Dick Vitale to the group and it would still never have to break stride.

The team can shoot, can rebound, can defend, can score, can make your eyes go round in wonder. They'll play, and they'll play together, and they'll play hard. I can't wait.

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