MANY BASKETBALL fans surely are surprised that the United States has landed somewhere between Angola and Lithuania in the men's Olympic tournament, which is quite a comedown and hardly dreamy.
But you can be sure NBA commissioner David Stern is neither surprised nor disappointed.
In fact, those who envision Stern wringing his hands over America's mediocrity actually have it backward.
This is exactly what Stern and the NBA's other higher-ups want: a competition that furthers the notion that basketball now belongs to the entire world and not just America.
That notion is a moneymaker, a big one, as the NBA already knows. And that notion, more than victories, is what Stern and the NBA want to harvest from international events.
Sorry to disappoint, but business comes before basketball.
This all started some 15 years ago when the NBA shrewdly realized that while the American basketball market was close to maxed out, the rest of the world was untapped.
Stern set in motion a plan to sell the game where there was room for growth, beyond America's borders.
Twelve years after the original Dream Team dominated at the 1992 Olympics, the NBA has reinvented itself as a global phenomenon with 13 international offices, games broadcast in 212 countries and All-Star ballots printed in 17 languages.
Basketball hasn't replaced soccer as the world's most popular game, but it is clearly second and the only potential challenger to soccer's primacy.
With 67 international players in NBA uniforms at the end of last season and the league's foreign licensing and merchandising profits skyrocketing, expansion franchises in Europe are almost a certainty in the next decade.
"Tiger Woods goes everywhere to play golf," Stern said earlier this year, all but confirming the multi-continent idea.
None of this was imaginable when I covered the league in the 1980s during the glory days of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The players, fans and reporters were almost all Americans, like the game itself. No one thought beyond the nation's borders.
The NBA's dogged pursuit of globalization became apparent to me years later when I covered the All-Star Game in New York in 2001, the first NBA event I had attended since the 1980s. Hopping on a media shuttle for the short ride from the hotel to the arena, I realized I was one of the few Americans on the bus, as opposed to many journalists from around the world.
As the shuttle poked through traffic, I sat and listened to conversations in French, Italian, German and a few more languages I couldn't identify.
I was covering the NBA All-Star Game, but I could just as easily have been at the Olympics, or soccer's World Cup. The intrinsically American sport I had known had been converted into an international spectacle.
As I watch the U.S. team's struggles at the 2004 Olympics, I think about those telling conversations I heard on the media shuttle three years ago.
Those voices, speaking in an array of languages, help make sense of the American mediocrity in Athens that has confounded so many fans.
The NBA wanted foreign reporters at the All-Star Game (and had for years) so they could herald basketball's joys around the world, luring top international athletes who, in turn, could make inroads and lure more athletes and fans. New basketball cultures would inevitably arise, and the game's popularity would soar.
It was a plan. It had worked brilliantly. But as the 2004 Olympics began, one key component still was lacking: a level playing field. A landscape in which America, though still superior, was clearly beatable. And the rest of the world was legitimate.
You can't have a game, after all, if you can't have a game.
When the first Dream Team overwhelmed its outmatched opponents, Stern stubbornly insisted the rest of the world eventually would catch up. It was hard to imagine that day arriving, and even harder to imagine why Stern would want it to arrive. Didn't he want America to succeed?
But now that that day has come, it all makes sense.
There's no doubt the world is catching up. American college players used to routinely beat the world in the Olympics, but now even some of America's best pros can't beat the world.
But it's a mistake to dismiss the NBA as a loser because many in the public are condemning the U.S. team for shooting poorly and lacking cohesion and fundamental skills, blah, blah, blah.
In fact, America's struggles represent a victory for the NBA; a victory that promises to resound on the league's financial ledgers while offering evidence of leadership quite possibly without peer in all of sports.
Country G S B Tot
United States 25 28 19 72
China 24 15 12 51
Russia 9 18 21 48
Today in Athens
Greco-Roman wrestling: heavyweight final
Track and field: men's 200 semifinals
Basketball: women's quarterfinals
TV schedule: Page 7E