Sometime during the Olympics, in between fix-up jobs on his new $20 million Miami Beach mansion, Shaquille O'Neal will probably settle in his Barcalounger to check out the U.S. men's basketball team. Kobe Bryant will put his lawyers on hold and pick up the remote. Kevin Garnett will take a break from his wedding plans to say a quick prayer for the red, white and blue. Like several other marquee NBA stars, Shaq, Kobe and KG will have a lot at stake even though they won't be in Athens. That's because if the U.S. fails in its quest for gold, the ire of American hoops fans won't be directed for long at the current members of Team USA. Fair or not, they're going to blame the big names who stayed home.
Only three NBA stars (Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and Richard Jefferson) return from last year's qualifying team. As a result, the U.S. will go to Athens with its youngest squad ever (average age 23.6 years) and one that, judging from its struggles during the exhibition season, is hardly a lock for the gold medal. "This is going to be a huge challenge because we do have young players," coach Larry Brown said. "They're going to look around and realize that these [international] teams are well-coached, they play an appealing style, they truly are teams and their skill level is extremely high. So, [we] better understand that right from the beginning."
In most cases, those NBA stars who decided not to play have reasonable excuses. Shaq has already won a gold medal ('96). Kobe has his pending criminal trial. Jason Kidd, Elton Brand and Karl Malone are coming off injuries. There are those, too, who have personal reasons for not playing. Garnett is reportedly getting married. Tracy McGrady wants to rest his balky back. Even Richard Hamilton and Ben Wallace, members of Brown's own Pistons team, said they needed to rest after their long playoff run. (Hamilton and Wallace also joined a chorus of players in citing security concerns, though the U.S. team is being quartered on the luxurious Queen Mary II in waters swarming with police and military craft.)
It doesn't matter how legitimate these NBA stars' excuses might be. The American public isn't going to be happy if the U.S. team (50-0 in Olympic play while using NBA players) goes down in ignominy. After finishing an embarrassing sixth at the 2002 World Championships, U.S. fans crave a return to hoops dominance.
With all of the defections, however, the U.S. squad that will take the floor in Athens is more of a "B" team than a Dream Team.
Even with a star-studded cast that includes Duncan, Iverson, Jefferson, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Shawn Marion, Stephon Marbury, Carlos Boozer, Lamar Odom, Emeka Okafor and Amare Stoudemire, the U.S. is no lock for gold. With little experience in international play, and a glaring lack of outside shooters, Team USA could well be headed for trouble. Argentina, Serbia and Montenegro, Lithuania and Spain lead the cast of capable foes, each of whom will be gunning to topple the Yankees.
Cracks have already begun to show in the U.S.'s NBA armor. In an exhibition last week, Team USA got hammered by lightly regarded Italy, and then struggled in exhibition matches against Germany and Turkey, two teams that didn't even qualify for the Olympics.
"We still have the edge in talent, but the rest of the world is catching up," says Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, a former star player and coach in the Italian League. "Some of these teams have been playing together for years, and they're more experienced in the international game."
Shaq, Kobe, KG and all the other NBA megastars who declined to go to Athens should surely hope Team USA can get the job done. Win the gold medal, and they're off the hook. Lose it, and they all might have to find a place to hide for awhile -- perhaps in Shaq's new palace in Miami Beach.