Cream Team's final tuneup is solid gold

July 06, 1992|By Diane Pucin | Diane Pucin,Knight-Ridder

PORTLAND, Ore. -- To all those who find 50-point basketball victories repugnant, tough luck.

That's the word from the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team. Having won every game by about the 10-minute mark of the first half, having outdunked the other nine teams combined (62-56), having posed for more pictures than Miss America, Team USA is ready for Barcelona.

After the United States beat Venezuela, 127-80, yesterday to win the gold medal at the Tournament of the Americas, Larry Bird grabbed the microphone.

The Portland Memorial Coliseum crowd became silent. Bird's voice was booming.

"This was just one small step toward what the real goal is," Bird said. "And that is to win the gold medal and bring it back to where it's supposed to be."

So take that, Lithuania and Croatia and Brazil. And pity poor Angola. The United States will open its Olympic quest July 26 against the African champions.

Playing for the first time in international competition with NBA players, the United States won its six games here by an average of 51.5 points. This wasn't about competition, it was about exhibition.

While some U.S. fans and media have begun complaining about the dominance of the United States, the opponents here have only acted honored to be on the same court with Magic Johnson, Bird, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, etc.

Yesterday, for example, the Venezuelans weren't content with the combined team photo that had become a ritual here. No, instead it was like a family picnic. It seemed every Venezuelan player brought his own camera. And each wanted one-on-one photo opportunities with the U.S. players.

Victor Diaz grabbed Clyde Drexler during the halftime shoot-around. And as the Americans lined up to receive their gold medals, first Patrick Ewing, then Drexler, then Jordan, then Bird were plucked out of line and asked to pose with some eager, awestruck Venezuelan.

Sam Shepard, Venezuela's 39-year-old point guard who lives in Clementon, N.J., during the off-season, had tried to lecture his teammates at halftime about fraternizing with the enemy. "Taking pictures? I'm not a big fan of that, so I was mad. Some of the guys didn't understand that. They said, 'What do you expect?' And I said, 'I expect you to try your best and be competitive.' "

That little speech was wasted. But who could blame the Venezuelans? What the NBA guys proved during this nine-day tournament was that there is still played in the United States a brand of basketball unfamiliar to the rest of the world.

Such as that dunking advantage. While most of the teams here had several players 6 feet 7 and taller, it was only the United States that played the game above the rim. Standing set shots were not uncommon among the other nine teams. And what impressed the others here was the shattering defense that the United States constantly displayed.

The United States was placed in an Olympic pool with Angola, Croatia, Brazil, Germany and Spain. Already Brazil and Croatia have earned the wrath of Barkley.

Some of the Brazil players had spoken all week here of an eagerness to play against the United States. They said they hoped the Americans would take time off from golfing to give the basketball game complete attention. But in Barkley's eyes, anyway, Brazil avoided an early confrontation with the United States by being upset by Venezuela in the semifinals Friday night.

"Brazil threw that game," Barkley said. "They didn't want to play us. But when you talk all that. . . you better be sure you play the game."

Some U.S. players also have been amused to hear how in Europe, Croatian star Toni Kukoc is called the world's second-best player.

So mark down July 27 (Croatia) and July 31 (Brazil) on your calendar. The United States might just be at its best in those games.

Whether the same 12 men who played here for the United States go to Barcelona is still an open question.

Guard John Stockton, who broke a bone in his leg in the team's second game, and Bird, who yesterday played two token minutes after missing the United States' last four games with a sore back, will be doing serious rehabilitation until July 15.

That's the date the United States must submit a final Olympic roster. Stockton, who has not needed a cast, is optimistic he will be ready. "I think the leg is progressing very fast," he said. "I have no reason to doubt that I'll be able to play."

Bird, who scored the first and last baskets for the United States in the tournament, was a sad sight most of the week. He was stretched out on the floor and watching with a longing look in his eyes.

Yesterday, when the fans started chanting "Lar-ry, Lar-ry," Johnson ripped off Bird's warmup pants. Bird jogged into the game and managed to get off three shots in the final two minutes.

But there is a serious worry that Bird, after playing only one game here seriously, was in considerable pain for the rest of the week.

Barkley, for one, would be happy to see Bird in Barcelona, even if rTC it's for token minutes. Figuring that the United States can win "with just five guys," Barkley would like Bird to come along. "He's a great leader," Barkley said, "a great guy to have around. What I've learned this week is that this is just a great bunch of guys. I want the original 12 to get our gold medal.

"And if we don't, it will be the greatest upset in sports history."

L As of today, in another upset, Barkley will get no argument.

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