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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Whatever Its Name, Dream Team Can't Win for Winning

Basketball: Victory over Lithuania is surrounded by the usual criticism.

July 25, 1996|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Say good night, Dream Team.

Caught between critics it can't please and standards it can't live up to, enmeshed in a controversy it can't duck, the U.S. men's basketball team moved Wednesday night to change its name from something dreamy to something more realistic.

"No team in the world can beat us, so we are a Dream Team," Charles Barkley said after the U.S. defeated Lithuania, 104-82, "but I've said before, I think it's time to change the name to Team USA.

"Nothing can compare to '92. But this team is still the best Dream Team in the world. And it's not fair, all the criticism we have taken since '92. We're trying to have fun. We don't have to win every game by 40, 50 points."

Actually, they haven't won any games by 40 points (you-know-who won by an average of 44 points at Barcelona.) Their 22-point margin Wednesday night was the lowest for the U.S. since the Dream era began (you-know-who waffled these same Lithuanians by 51 in Barcelona).

And this was barely Lithuania. Sarunas Marciulionis sat out the game because of a sore knee. Arvydas Sabonis got in early foul trouble and played only 12 minutes. Rimas Kurtinaitis, the guard who gunned down the U.S. collegians for the Soviet Union at Seoul in 1988, played only 14 minutes.

Nevertheless, the Lithuanians were within 45-42 in the closing minutes of the half before American depth wore them down.

The games are the least of the Americans' problems. There is a growing chorus that asserts that multimillionaire professionals are inappropriate participants here. There are the usual stories about staying at a downtown hotel, the Omni, rather than the Olympic village.

Until Wednesday, the American players handled the criticism gracefully. For the record, their poise ran out at 11:30 p.m. EDT, when Reggie Miller began complaining about the complaints about their hotel in a TV show he saw.

"It makes it look like we're staying at a Ritz-Carlton," said Miller. "We're staying at a one-star hotel. The room service is terrible--no disrespect to the Omni.

"You guys are making it look like we're the bad guys. Seems like we're hanging out all late hours. We're here to have a good time. We're here to meet athletes. We're here to compete.

"We're 3-0 and we're kicking some behind and we're still taking criticism. There's no way we can win. We can go out and beat China by 50 and you'll say it's not fair. So we can't win. So all we've got to do is answer these questions with a smile and go on about our business and in the end, the U.S. will have the gold medal. That's all they'll say 10 years from now."

OK, bad room service and a press corps without pity, standard complaints for an NBA star.

At this point, however, Coach Lenny Wilkens, a noted island of calm, lost it too, suggesting the criticism is taking its toll in Dreamland.

"As I told you writers, you can't have your cake and eat it too," Wilkens said.

"Everybody's not going to be happy, but that's how society is today. They all look for that kind of controversy. They all want to create something. I watched the same program Reggie did today.

"All it does, it stirs up stuff. Nobody is satisfied. That's the way the world is today, and that's why we have so many damn problems. Because we're always looking for something, rather than trying to bring things together."

At Barcelona, the Dream Team was criticized too, by USOC president-designate Leroy Walker, a former track coach, who said he didn't care if the NBA players returned. However, the team was ecstatically embraced by fans and participants and the moment passed.

The same questions are being raised all over, but this time, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird aren't around to answer them.

For the record, these U.S. players say they're enjoying the Olympics.

"I tell you what," Miller said, "I want to meet that Kerri Strug. That was awesome. My wife was fortunate to go there. She came home crying and jumping up and down and celebrating."

Said Barkley: "I think she was crying because she had to come home to Reggie."

Or because the Dream Team/Team USA has five more of these tedious games to endure before summer starts at last.

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