An American tourist in Rome was walking away from the Colosseum
last Friday when he ran into the defending world champion USA
basketball team. He was about to ask one of the players for an
autograph when curiosity overtook him. "I'm sorry," the tourist
said nervously. "I know I should know you. But I don't."
"No, no, it's O.K.," the player said, and this is how he
introduced himself and his teammates: "We're not NBA." The
tourist still didn't understand.
"We're outsiders," the player said, trying to explain himself a
little better. After all, you can't just meet a stranger outside
the Roman Colosseum and say, "Hi, I'm Jason Sasser. I'm a
24-year-old unemployed small forward from Dallas. Grant Hill,
Gary Payton and Tim Duncan were supposed to be on the Dream
Team, but they didn't feel like playing, so my country asked a
bunch of nobodies like me to play instead."
On Sunday in Rome, Sasser, whose NBA experience consists of 69
minutes spread over eight games, boarded a private jet with his
teammates for a flight to Athens. There a chartered bus was
waiting with a police escort to take the U.S. team to an elegant
resort hotel. On Wednesday, when the world championship would
open, he'd put on an oversized warmup top featuring white stars
in a field of blue with red trim. This might take some getting
used to, but Sasser is the starting small forward for the
U.S.--not for the Dream Team, not for the NBA millionaires'
team, but for the American team. The American team. Our team.
If Sasser and his teammates happen to win the world
championship--as they very well might--you may decide that they
were an improvement over the NBA stars. When was the last time
the U.S. put together a Dream Team that wasn't hyping a sneaker
company? A team that didn't act like it was doing you a favor by
playing hard? A team of real dreamers.
The trouble began hundreds of millions of dollars ago when NBA
owners started complaining that the best players in the world
were making too much money. The players responded that the
owners had plenty more to go around, and, anticipating the July
1 lockout, wondered publicly whether 12 NBA stars ought to
represent the U.S.--and help promote the league--in the 1998
FIBA World Championship, the 16-nation tournament that is
basketball's World Cup. The attorneys on one end of the
speakerphone and the agents on the other kept daring each other
to make a move. USA Basketball, the sport's American federation,
was caught in the middle, without a team. On June 16 the
federation said it couldn't wait for an answer any longer from
the NBA players. In effect, the Dream Team was put on waivers.
The federation, however, had no intention of withdrawing from
the world championship. Jim Tooley, an assistant executive
director for USA Basketball, instead put together a new list of
candidates that included 1,500 Americans who play in the CBA and
in professional leagues abroad. After calling a few folks at the
top of his list, Tooley realized that any big-name player who'd
ever had anything to do with the NBA wasn't going to
participate. Former stars like Dominique Wilkins and Byron
Scott, for example, who played in Europe last year, apparently
didn't want to be seen as scabs, so Tooley had to cross more
than 300 names off his list. "I believe some agents dissuaded
players," Tooley says. "One agent as much as told me, 'You guys
kicked [the NBA players] off the team, and now you're getting
what you deserve.'"
That left Tooley with CBA players, amateurs and players who had
gone to Europe and were quickly forgotten back home. "We got the
list down to 200 guys we were interested in," he says. "Then I
just started making phone calls. I called more than 150 guys."
From that group Tooley chose 30 invitees--including three
collegians--and all but two of them arrived on July 8 in Chicago
for tryouts, just three weeks before the U.S. would begin
defense of the gold medal won by Dream Team II in 1994. That
team, remembered for the trash talking of Derrick Coleman and
Larry Johnson, had been recruited after months of negotiating,
pampering and flattering. The players who came to Chicago,
however, had been neither coaxed nor seduced nor promised
anything more than a plane ticket and a chance.
One of them was 24-year-old Jimmy King. A shooting guard who was
one of the most heavily recruited players in the country seven
years ago, he had gone to Michigan as part of the Fab Five. Two
visits to the Final Four were followed by a year spent mostly on
the Toronto Raptors' bench. King was then traded to the Dallas
Mavericks, who waived him before the 1996-97 season. "That was
the first time I had ever been cut from anything," he says. King
spent most of the past two years in the CBA, where he was MVP
This summer he was in the middle of a private circus tour of NBA
tryouts--going from Portland to the predraft camp in Chicago, to
Miami, Milwaukee, Phoenix and Charlotte--when his mother reached
him by phone. "She said, 'There are going to be replacement
players for the world championship team, and you're going to be
one of them,'" says King. After calling to make sure he was
invited to the tryout, King headed straight to Jamaica for six
days with his girlfriend and his Bible. "I had a little room
right there on the beach," he says. "I went there to get my mind
right, to get in tune mentally, physically and spiritually."
This tournament may not have been the last chance for King and
the other players to prove themselves NBA-worthy, but some of
them looked at it that way. "When I found out I was invited, I
had nine days to prepare, and I just killed myself," says David
Wood, a 33-year-old forward who has played for 13 clubs,
including eight in the NBA, four in Europe and one in the CBA. He
paid $35 an hour to a well-known San Antonio gym rat named Mike
Gibbs to help get him ready. "But it's hard to train for an
opportunity like this," Wood says, "when the intensity is so high
and your life is on the line on every play."
The coach of the team, Rudy Tomjanovich of the Houston Rockets,
was a strange sight among these players--the equivalent of
General Patton running a boot camp. Tomjanovich held four daily
workouts, and each player took part in two of them every day. On
the third day the players gathered in a hotel ballroom, where
the chairman of the selection committee, NBA senior vice
president Rod Thorn, revealed the names of the 16 players who
had survived the first round of cuts. "It was shocking to me,"
Wood says. "I think some of our best individuals were cut.
Usually guys who look the best and score the best make the team,
but that wasn't the way it worked here. The emphasis was on
strong defense and unselfish play."
It was a day for the unknowns. "I had never heard of four of the
guys," says center Brad Miller, who went undrafted this year
after graduating from Purdue. "I had to look them up on the
After another 13 days, four more players were trimmed. King, Wood
and Miller all made the team.
Each player was allowed to bring one guest on the world
championship trip--which included 11 days of training and
exhibitions in Monaco and Rome--so King brought his mother. For
eight days they shared a luxury room overlooking the
Mediterranean at the Loews in Monaco, the same hotel where
Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley gambled
thousands of dollars before the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. "I
came into the room to go to practice, and I couldn't find my
shorts because she'd put them back in my bag in the closet,"
King says. "I said, 'Ma, just leave everything where it is.' So
then she started talking about how this is going to be my side
of the room and this is going to be your side. She wakes up
early, opens up the shades and the sun beams in. Man, I have a
newfound respect for my father."
Wood invited his 65-year-old father, Omar, recently retired from
Amtrak after 44 years spent mostly driving the trains. Gerard
King, a 6'9" forward from Nicholls State, roomed with his best
friend, 5'4" Shawn Royal. Sasser's guest was 25-year-old B.J.
Jones, a former point guard at Colorado and Wayland Baptist, who
brought a highlight video of himself just in case any European
clubs happened to be interested.
The players were suddenly being treated like basketball
royalty--flying in an NBA team jet, staying in the opulent
hotels meant for the Dream Team--mainly because those
arrangements had already been made, bills had already been paid
and deposits were nonrefundable. Other services and amenities
were slashed--no extra security, no NBA promotional people, no
TV coverage on NBC. (USA Basketball pulled the plug on that
after the NBA players were dropped, but if the U.S. reaches the
second round, ESPN2 will offer limited coverage.)
Particularly noticeable during the team's visits to Monte Carlo
and Rome was the absence of player agents, sneaker executives
and a yapping American press corps. The only U.S. sportswriter
following the team as it landed in Athens was the Houston
Chronicle's Eddie Sefko, who was there only because Tomjanovich
is his hometown's coach.
Tomjanovich wasn't surprised to hear that his players weren't
haunting the Monte Carlo casinos. "It's because they don't have
the money to do what the NBA guys did," he said. That's not such
a bad thing. The team's best shooter, 29-year-old Jimmy Oliver,
and his wife, Joli, went to Monaco's outdoor ballet. "My wife
was a dance major at Kent State," says Oliver. "She has taught
me to get into three of the positions they hold in ballet, just
to show me how strong you have to be to hold those positions. We
try to go to the ballet four or five times a year."
The starting point guard, Michael Hawkins, who brought his wife
of seven weeks, Tanya, couldn't believe he was in Monte Carlo.
During the tryouts he was certain he would be cut. "I just knew
I was gone," Hawkins says. But rejection and perseverance are
the white and red blood cells coursing through this entire team.
All 12 players have been told they aren't good enough. All 12
kept trying anyway.
Hawkins, who played 29 games for the Boston Celtics in 1996-97
but spent last season with former Greek champion Olympiakos,
might be the team's most important player, in large part because
of his experiences playing in front of Greek fans. Greece is the
only European country more passionate about basketball than
about soccer. Before almost any important basketball game,
police frisk fans for coins and cigarette lighters. During the
angriest moments of a game, spectators tend to throw coins at
players, referees and coaches. They use the lighters to heat the
coins. Successful experimentation over the years has taught them
that a hot coin will stick to skin. "[Olympiakos] fans would
shine lasers in the eyes of the opposing team," says Hawkins.
"They would throw lighters, coins, soda containers, keys, nuts,
bolts. Somebody threw one of those big firecrackers, and it hit
the referee in the back of the leg. The game had to be stopped
15 or 20 minutes while they taped the referee up. The floor was
burned about the size of a pie."
If this team loses, no one will be surprised. After all, it's no
Dream Team. If this team wins, it will be because of
Tomjanovich, and because of the squad's pressure defense, and
because eight of the players have professional experience in
Europe and understand the opponents and the referees. The U.S.
can successfully defend its championship, but only if all 12
players work together, depend on each other. There was a movie a
few decades ago, also set in Europe, about a group of Americans
willing to risk everything to save themselves and their cause.
In effect, Jimmy King has gone from the Fab Five to the Dirty
coursing through this entire team.