Dream Team helps other countries measure their basketball reality

August 03, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN COLUMNIST

ATLANTA -- In 1956, a U.S. Olympic men's basketball team led by collegiate stars Bill Russell and K. C. Jones won its games by an average of 53.5 points.

Did anyone demand the next Olympic team be composed of high school players?

In 1960, an Olympic team featuring Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas won its games by an average of 42.4 points.

Did anyone decry that outcome?

Enough whining about the Dream Team already. Yes, it's going to beat Yugoslavia tonight for the gold medal. Yes, it's still far ahead of the rest of the world. Yes, the United States should continue sending NBA stars to the Olympics.

How else will other countries improve?

"Maybe as more young players get involved with the game, 10-15 years down the line we can get there," said former Seton Hall star Andrew Gaze of Australia after Thursday night's 101-73 semifinal loss to the U.S. team.

"Playing the United States helps put us on the path to being on equal footing with the rest of the world. Maybe that won't happen in my lifetime, but it definitely will happen."

It already did happen, not for Australia, but other nations. Indeed, the U.S. collegians' failure to win five international competitions from 1987 to 1991 is why the Dream Team was formed in the first place.

Now critics want to break up the Dreamers, in the name of better competition. No doubt, these are the same people who would demand the return of the NBA elite the moment a lesser U.S. team lost in the Olympics.

It doesn't matter if the U.S. sent college All-Americans, the NCAA champion, even a pro-college mix -- that team could get beat. But why even initiate such a discussion? It misses the point.

Tonight's outcome is not in question -- "I'm 99.9 percent sure they're going to beat us," Yugoslavia's Vlade Divac said -- but this is not about tonight.

This is about the future.

To ensure the best competition, you need the best players. The Dream Team is the standard, just as U.S. collegians once were the standard. The Olympics provide an opportunity for other countries to measure their progress.

And make no mistake, they are making progress.

In 1992, the Dream Team's average margin of victory was 43.75 points per game. In these Olympics, it's down to 32.6.

Small consolation? Perhaps.

But Argentina trailed the Americans by only two points at halftime. Angola trailed by one midway through the first half. Lithuania managed a 40-40 tie at one point, and Australia led 12-7 and 34-30.

Lithuania coach Donn Nelson went so far as to call the U.S. "vulnerable." There is even a detectable weakness in this team -- its defense against the three-point shot. Australia hit six first-half threes against the Dreamers.

The big thing is, opponents are no longer afraid. The original Dream Team had three legends -- Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. This team has great players, but does anyone really fear Mitch Richmond?

Australian point guard Shane Heal drew a charge from Karl Malone, prompting Charles Barkley to say he's not "all there." Actually, Heal is in full possession of all his faculties. He said Gary Payton "talked a lifetime of trash out there."

It's that kind of defiance that was missing from opponents in '92, and it's an important first step. The Dream Team might not play a close game in 2000, or even 2004. But eventually, the rest of the world is going to even the score.

"Thirty years ago, the American college players were beating teams by these margins, so maybe in 20 or 30, it will be different and they [other nations] will be able to beat them," five-time Brazilian Olympian Oscar Schmidt said.

Who knows?

Maybe it won't even take that long.

The U.S. team reached the height of its dominance in 1956 and '60, then slowly its aura began to fade. There was an eight-point win over Yugoslavia in '64. A five-point win over Puerto Rico in '68. And then the shocking one-point loss to the former Soviet Union in '72.

That game, of course, produced the most controversial ending in Olympic history, but it was close enough for the United States to lose. The way the Dream Team prepares, playing together for only a month before the Olympics, who's to say it can't happen again?

Back in '92, Angola's Herlander Coimbra took an elbow in the chest from Barkley, and became an unwitting symbol of Dream Team dominance. Yesterday, Coimbra was asked if the United States should send a less powerful team. He shook his head no.

"That would be wrong," Coimbra said. "We are all players. The Dream Team is the best team now, but if we keep working, maybe in 10 to 20 years a team can beat the Dream Team."

If they don't keep playing, we'll never know.

Pub Date: 8/03/96

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