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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | Today's Closeup

Only One More Game, and This Dream Is Over

Commentary: It hasn't been much fun, or competitive, but the powers that be have no plans to change things.


ATLANTA — What do you call it when critics pan you, a bomb goes off across the street and security is so jumpy it evacuates the hotel because of a lumpy Fed-Ex package?

Doesn't sound like a dream so far, does it?

Whatever happened to opponents lining up for pictures with them, snapping off shots of teammates from the bench--"Here I am guarding Michael!"--training on the Riviera, preening in the spotlight?

It's morning. The dream is over.

For the 12 NBA stars, this isn't a job. It's more like an adventure in which they experience their version In a remarkable show of poise, thought impossible for a team with Charles Barkley as elder statesman, they didn't. Except for Gary Payton's mouth and Reggie Miller's Marie Antoinette Award-winning complaint about room service, they've been as gracious as anyone at the Games.

International basketball is professional too, but it isn't ready for them. Going into tonight's unpromising finale against Yugoslavia, the Americans have been in complete control of their games, which have been crushing bores.

Blaming media conspiracies may be a handy out--ask ACOG--but if a lot of people say the same thing, they might have a point. Despite rabid crowds of 30,000-plus, these haven't been games but demonstrations.

Ominously, the NBA's most ardent sponsor and broadcast partner, NBC, abandoned them for more dramatic scenes in such prosaic pastimes as softball and soccer. After the quarterfinal Brazil yawner, one of the announcers was asked how long they'd been on the air.

"About 30 seconds," he said.

Nevertheless, the initial powers--NBC, IOC, NBA, USOC, USA Basketball--like things the way they are. The Games have record ratings, basketball has broken all Olympic attendance marks and the movement is in the process of bringing in the NHL and perhaps even major league baseball, so the bureaucrats aren't likely to do anything for the next four years except congratulate themselves.

"You know," says C.M. Newton, president of USA Basketball, "I've read that [criticism] in the paper, but I haven't ever heard that from people.

"There's a difference. I know the press seems to have that on as a cause, but the people I've talked to--and I've been out and around--seem to be enjoying watching this team play."

In real life, Newton is the Kentucky athletic director. A former basketball coach, he opposed sending pros, but decided after seeing the Dream Team at Barcelona it was the "right thing to do."

"The thing that's exciting to me is, these guys really want to represent their country," he says. "I think anybody that says it's the wrong thing, if they were around these people on a daily basis and really saw the excitement they have, putting 'U.S.' on their shirt, the young millionaires that are giving up several weeks of their time to play for the United States, I think that they would change their tune.

Failing that, people will get more bored, criticism will get louder, the older players will retire and the younger ones will have to shoulder the burden."

Prediction: Sydney newspapers carry complaints about Dream Team IV at the 2000 Games. In the printable portion of his response, Gary Payton announces if the Aussies don't like it, they can go home.

NBA Commissioner David Stern realizes he has a problem.

There's a way to salvage this competition: Limit it to players 23-and-under as soccer does. The U.S. no longer dominates tournaments such as the World University Games and it would become competitive again. Of course, Americans wouldn't win all the time, but we're big enough to handle it.

Or we should be.


Men's Basketball / The Dreamiest Team?

A look at U.S. Olympic team's winning margins:

1936: 20.8

1948: 33.5

1952: 19.5

1956*: 53.5

1960: 42.4

1964: 30.0

1968: 26.0

1972: 28.8**

1976: 12.0

1980: Boycott

1984: 32.1

1988: 30.4***

1992: 43.8

1996: 33.9

* U.S. team consisted of Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Carl Cain, Bill Hougland, James Walsh, Bill Evans, Burdette Haldorson, Ron Tomsic, Richard Boushka, Gil Ford, Robert Jeangerard, and Charles Darling. They won all eight games by at least 30 points and the average score was 99-46.

** Won silver medal; lost in championship to Soviet Union.

*** Won Bronze medal; lost in semifinals to Soviet Union.

Sources: Times staff

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