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SLAM DUNK RARELY CHALLENGED, A JOYLESS DREAM TEAM CRUISED TO THE GOLD AND REEMPHASIZED THE STILL-YAWNING TALENT GAP BETWEEN THE U.S. AND THE REST OF THE WORLD

Aug. 12, 1996
Aug. 12, 1996

Table of Contents
Aug. 12, 1996

Track And Field
Soccer
Centennial Park
Reflections [bonus Piece]
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SLAM DUNK RARELY CHALLENGED, A JOYLESS DREAM TEAM CRUISED TO THE GOLD AND REEMPHASIZED THE STILL-YAWNING TALENT GAP BETWEEN THE U.S. AND THE REST OF THE WORLD

We will know that the rest of the world has reached the level of
the U.S. in men's basketball when it becomes harder for the
Dream Team to win a gold medal than to fight its way through the
crowds on its way to the Hard Rock Cafe. We will know it when
the Americans' most memorable Olympic moments are last-second
shots and heroic defensive plays, not forward Charles Barkley's
acting like an aerobics instructor and leading the crowd in arm
gestures to the song Y.M.C.A. or gargantuan center Shaquille
O'Neal's hefting tiny gymnast Dominique Moceanu during a photo
opportunity. We will know it when the most intense battles occur
on the court, not during the Penny Hardaway-Reggie Miller table
tennis matches in a hotel recreation room.

This is an article from the Aug. 12, 1996 issue

Someday true competition for the gold medal will return to
Olympic men's basketball, but in the meantime you may want to
find a hobby to occupy yourself, because it's going to be
awhile. Do not be taken in by the small scare Yugoslavia threw
into the Dreamers in last Saturday night's gold medal game. If
anything, it was a sign of the U.S. players' superiority that
they could watch the Yugoslavs play their hearts out for 30
minutes, then brush them off like mosquitoes on the way to a
95-69 victory.

The Yugoslavs--particularly Zarko Paspalj, a clever forward who
scored 19 points on 8-for-11 shooting, and hard-nosed point
guard Aleksandar Djordjevic (13 points and six assists)--were
gallant if overmatched opponents for the U.S. Their efforts
should signify that the rest of the world is creeping closer to
the Americans but not at a pace that should cause the U.S. any
immediate worry. "It took a long time for the rest of the world
to catch up to the U.S. college players, but it happened," says
Australian forward Andrew Gaze, who played at Seton Hall. "We'll
catch the American professionals, too. I just don't know if it
will be in my lifetime."

The game against Yugoslavia added fuel to the U.S. players'
contention that the competition wasn't as one-sided as it
appeared, an argument that until Saturday night had seemed
hollow indeed. For most of the tournament, even the compliments
the U.S. players gave their victims accentuated how ludicrous
this Olympic event is. "Give those guys a lot of credit,"
Barkley said after the U.S.'s 101-73 semifinal drubbing of
Australia. "In the first half we actually had to play." More
often the Dream Team performed the way sprinter Michael Johnson
ran his preliminary heats, with a kind of controlled power,
expending just enough energy to establish clear superiority,
then cruising to the finish. In their eight games the Dreamers
allowed their opponents to have occasional fleeting fantasies of
an upset, but in the end the average margin of victory for the
U.S. was a remarkable 31.8 points (12 points less, it is true,
than Dream Team I's average margin in 1992).

That doesn't mean that everything came easily to the U.S. team.
"This has been grueling," Barkley said, referring not so much to
the games as to the Dreamers' Olympic experience. The American
players had to deal not only with the backlash from observers
who felt their dominance wasn't good for the Games but also with
the security concerns that came with being the highest-profile
athletes in Atlanta. "Walking into the Omni [the team hotel] is
like walking into the CIA," forward Grant Hill said during the
first week. And that was before the explosion in Centennial
Olympic Park and the subsequent bomb scare at the Omni that
forced the Dreamers to evacuate the hotel for half an hour on
the morning of July 30. By that time forward Karl Malone had
sent his family home largely because he feared for their safety.
"When this team came here, we thought we were doing something
for our country, but it's turned into something we didn't
expect," Malone said last Friday. "We're taking heat for either
being too good or for not winning by enough, and then we have to
look over our shoulders and have bodyguards with us wherever we
go. I think players in the future may look at what we went
through, and it might be hard to convince them to play in the
Olympics. I would tell them that representing your country is
worth all the hassles, but don't be surprised if some guys start
to turn down the invitation."

Such refusals might be the only way to force a rethinking of the
Dream Team concept. Despite the criticism, there seems to be no
wavering in the resolve of the NBA or USA Basketball to continue
using top pro players, and the International Olympic Committee
likes the idea of NBA stars participating in the Games so much
that there is sentiment to include major leaguers on the U.S.
baseball squad in the 2000 Games. Without doubt there's an
audience for these blowouts; capacity crowds flocked to the
Georgia Dome for each Dream Team game. But after the initial
thrill of seeing such a breathtaking collection of talent take
the floor, neither the fans in attendance nor anyone else
remained terribly interested. Except for the gold medal game,
which it telecast virtually uninterrupted, NBC gave viewers just
brief glimpses of the Dreamers. And even though the games were
sellouts, several fans reportedly exchanged their Dream Team
tickets for ones to everything from women's basketball to team
handball. All of this was because the games were like junk
food--nicely packaged but ultimately unsatisfying. Nothing the
U.S. players did could erase the Globetrotter-like feel. Noted
Hardaway the day before the gold medal game, "It's almost like
we're on stage, giving a performance."

That is exactly why the Dream Team, in its present form, has no
business at the Olympics. It is not so much that no other team
can stay within 20 points; the U.S. players should not have to
apologize for excellence. It's that the players are as out of
place as rock stars at a symphony. One of the best arguments
against the Dream Team idea is that not even this exemplary
group of NBA stars seemed quite at home in the Olympic setting.
U.S. coach Lenny Wilkens set a classy tone, ensuring there was
none of the showboating or clowning that could have made a
mockery of the competition; the players were affable and as
accessible as could be expected given the tight security
restrictions; and the team became almost a charitable
foundation. Eleven of the 12 players agreed to donate the
$15,000 bonus each U.S. gold medal winner receives to a fund to
help rebuild black churches recently destroyed by arson, and the
12th, center Hakeem Olajuwon, a Muslim, pledged his bonus to the
Islamic Society of Greater Houston. The team also brought
14-year-old Fallon Stubbs, whose mother, Alice Hawthorne, was
killed in the Centennial Park bombing and who was herself
wounded by shrapnel, to the Omni Hotel to meet all the players.

As admirable as those deeds were, they couldn't completely erase
the impression that the Dream Teamers were marking the days on
the calendar until they could go home and resume their golf
games. Their every utterance was examined for signs of
arrogance, and sometimes they weren't hard to find. "People make
it sound like we're staying at the Ritz-Carlton," Miller said in
response to criticism of the team's staying at the Omni instead
of in the Olympic Village. "We're staying at a one-star hotel.
Nothing against the Omni, but the room service stinks."

"Don't say that," Barkley admonished. "We've got to stay there
one more week."

Part of the reason the Dream Team appeared out of place was that
it lacked the youthful enthusiasm of previous U.S. Olympic
basketball teams. Eight of its players were more than 30 years
old, and five--Barkley, Malone, forward Scottie Pippen, center
David Robinson and guard John Stockton--already had gold medals
in their trophy cases. That's why if the U.S. insists on
continuing to send NBA stars, it would be better to combine them
with college players and perhaps impose an age limit and a
no-repeat rule. Imagine a 25-and-under U.S. team: This year it
might have included such pros as Hardaway, Hill, O'Neal, Jason
Kidd of the Dallas Mavericks and Jerry Stackhouse of the
Philadelphia 76ers, as well as college stars and recent draftees
like Marcus Camby, Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. That kind of
squad would have high-profile stars and entertaining players,
but it also would restore an element of uncertainty to the
competition.

Not everyone thinks the current system needs adjustment. Wilkens
believes that as the rest of the world improves and the current
older generation of NBA stars bows out of international
competition, the gap will close quickly. "Look at the players on
this team," he says. "Maybe three or four of them will be back
[in the Olympics] in four years--Grant, Penny, maybe Shaq. Add
to that the fact that players are coming into the NBA at younger
ages, before they've really got all the fundamental skills, and
you're going to have future Dream Teams that probably won't be
as accomplished as the ones that have played in 1992 and '96."
Adds Barkley in assessing the international talent level, "Ain't
no way a college team could beat those guys....I think they're
going to close the gap more and more. Maybe not the next
Olympics, but the one after that, we could be in trouble."

It is true that this Dream Team's opponents seemed less in awe
of them than the opposition was of the 1992 squad, which
included Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. All that
really meant, though, is that this year foes asked the U.S.
players to sign autographs and pose for pictures after the game
instead of before. But is the rest of the world really that
close to reaching the level of the Dream Team? No. The best
indication of the gap was the way the other teams freely
admitted that they were playing for the silver medal, with
highly regarded Croatia all but waving a white flag when it
played the Americans (final score: 102-71). Even in the gold
medal game, Wilkens was never concerned enough to call a timeout.

"Maybe in 20, 30 years it won't be so easy for the Dream Team,"
Brazilian forward Oscar Schmidt said after his team's 98-75 loss
to the U.S. in the quarterfinals. "One day the Americans will
have to worry because some team will give the Dream Team a great
game. Let's all hope we are alive to see it."

Given the sleep-inducing nature of most of this Dream Team's
games, let's all hope we're awake to see it.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Robinson helped clinch the final game with 28 points and a facial on Zeljko Rebraca. [David Robinson dunking basketball]COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN O'Neal was too heavily armed for Lithuania's Saulius Stombergas (8) and Mindaugas Zukauskas. [Saulius Stombergas, Shaquille O'Neal, and Mindaugas Zukauskas in game]COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Miller's D didn't faze Aussie three-point-ace Gaze, who went for 25. [Reggie Miller defending against Andrew Gaze]COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN In a 28-point blowout of Argentina, Barkley got his kicks by jamming on a helpless Ruben Wolkowisky. [Charles Barkley hanging from rim of basket]

HONORABLE MENTION

The Dream Team may have dominated men's Olympic basketball, but
players from other countries shone, too. Here's a mythical
eight-man rotation of international players that might have
given the U.S. a run for its money.

Player Comments

Sasha Danilovic, G Big (6'7") and physical with soft
Yugoslavia shooting touch; ready for
breakthrough NBA year with
the Heat

Juan Espil, G A smooth scorer reminiscent of
Argentina Gail Goodrich; scored 27 points
against the Dream Team

Andrew Gaze, F Shot 44% from three-point
Australia range while displaying stalwart
team leadership

Shane Heal, G Won respect by going chest-to-chest
Australia with Charles Barkley; earned
NBA tryout with the Timberwolves

Toni Kukoc, F Bulls' sixth man shot and
Croatia passed well despite a
broken left thumb

Jose Ortiz, C Former Oregon State star was
Puerto Rico the top rebounder and second-
leading scorer in the Games

ArvYdas Sabonis, C Passed brilliantly, as usual,
Lithuania and scored 30 in the bronze
medal game

Oscar Schmidt, F Even at age 38, the ultimate
Brazil shooter, with unlimited range
and no conscience