trying to explain and understand the defeat of USA against Argentina (i wonder what will be the reactions tomorrow)
Too bad nobody thought of it sooner
By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Writer
September 5, 2002
Ten years ago, explaining the difference between USA basketball and the rest of the world was simple.
We had Michael Jordan.
They had guys wearing Air Jordans.
Man, how times have changed.
One night after Argentina beat the United States 87-80 -- ending one of the most impressive runs in sports -- the Americans faced Yugoslavia in a quarterfinal at the World Championships.
U.S. coach George Karl, who brings NBA and international experience to the job, took the long view after the Argentina loss: ``There's a part of me that thinks this is a celebration of basketball.''
But when he added that it will be ``interesting'' to see how his team responds, you hope that Karl and the people in charge at USA Basketball -- not to mention the NBA -- are preparing for more than just their countrymen's next game.
Ten years ago, still angry over losing the hoops gold at the 1988 Games, the NBA sent a Dream Team to the Barcelona Olympics. For three weeks or so, the rest of the world took turns portraying the Washington Generals. They had no choice.
The only suspense after tipoff was how many foreign dignitaries would try to squeeze into the postgame photos. Angolans, Croats, Puerto Ricans, Brazilians -- it made no difference to Team USA. It treated them all like pylons at a coaching clinic, then sent each home with a parting gift.
No one who saw Angolan center Nelson Sardinha's smile after one of those poundings will ever forget it. His team, the African nations' champion three years running, had just lost 116-48. Playing against Patrick Ewing and David Robinson, Sardinha fouled out after scoring just two points.
``It was the best game of my career,'' he said, beaming. ``I took a picture with Magic Johnson after the game.''
The original Dreamers arrived in Barcelona with two objectives and achieved them both. They reclaimed the gold and they moved merchandise.
On the court, they crushed every opponent -- the average margin of victory was 44 points -- and did it with great style and humor. And they got the rest of the world to buy into basketball, which meant they would also buy more NBA stuff.
After having Michael, Magic & Co. beamed into the living room, what kid in Lithuania, or China, or Argentina for that matter, didn't yearn for the sneakers, jerseys and ballcaps those guys wore?
As to what the rest of the world would do with all that expensive gear, then-Dream Team coach Chuck Daly said not to worry.
``There's 183 countries and 3 billion people watching these games. And somewhere out there now is a 13-year-old who wants to be a Michael, a Magic, a Larry or a Patrick,'' he said.
Turns out Daly didn't miss by much.
Right after the 1992 Games, just as they'd always done, kids in small towns and big ones dribbled down to the corner store with a basketball in one hand, then switched to the other hand on the way home. What was different, though, is that now it went on more and more in places like Split, Croatia, and Rio de Janeiro. Enough so that like the best on the playgrounds over here, the best from over there were ready when the NBA came calling.
The No. 1 draft choice this year is 7-foot-5 Yao Ming of China. Five of the 10 rookies on the first- and second-team All-Rookie squads were non-Americans. Pau Gasol was rookie of the year. Emmanuel Ginobili, the Argentine guard who took apart the U.S. defense, is already under contract with the San Antonio Spurs.
None of that should come as news: The NBA has been scouting the rest of the world for more than two decades. What's news is how much easier it's become to find talent. And what should worry basketball people in the States is how much hungrier and hardworking so much of it has become.
The Argentines who ended the American run -- 58-0 when NBA all-star collections stand in as Team USA -- are all pros themselves, even if they played in Europe.
Some people will gripe they spent more time practicing together and that even on their best night, the Argentines would have had no chance against a Team USA at full strength. And Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd and Allen Iverson all begged off their patriotic duty for one reason or another, so it's possible the streak could have survived one more international tournament.
But that misses the point.
This Dream Team didn't lose to better talent. It lost to a better team. That's going to happen more and more, unless future U.S. teams learn how to play together again.
This Dream Team had no idea how to stop a pick-and-roll or a well-designed inbounds play. That's what you get from players who stand around on defense for a season's worth of NBA games watching middling talents trying all night to make one highlight reel move.
The NBA changed its rules last season to try to cut that stuff out, to get back some ball movement and the idea of team play. Too bad nobody thought of itsooner.
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Writeto him at jlitke(at)ap.org