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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | Basketball

Time to Dump or Overhaul Olympic Basketball


ATLANTA — It's time to dump or overhaul Olympic basketball, at least the men's version, for a generation or two.

If basketball stays, and the ground rules don't change dramatically, the Summer Games are doomed to see successive NBA-stacked "Dream Teams" bludgeon everyone else with the sheer depth of the best talent money can buy from around the world.

This year's Dream Teamers won the gold not by virtue of inspired performances or brilliant strategy. They played, at times, as if they wanted to be on vacation or as if they were strangers, like an all-star weekend that dragged on too long.

They won because they could rotate Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon in the pivot. They could bring in Anfernee Hardaway for Reggie Miller, or vice versa. If Scottie Pippen needed a blow, no problem. Charles Barkley checked in.

They won, and will continue winning, because their worst five players are better than any other team's starting five. That won't change for the next three or four Olympics.

That doesn't mean the Dream Teamers play together better than other teams. They don't and probably won't as long as they drift in for just a few weeks of practice before the Olympics, either after the NBA season, as they did this year, or prior to it, as they will for the 2000 Sydney Games.

Throughout this Olympics, every team except China played the Americans close in the first half, then faded from the fatigue of having to cope with big, fresh bodies coming off the U.S. bench.

Yugoslavia, which led nearly the entire first half of the championship game and trailed by only five points with 11 minutes left, showed much better teamwork and discipline than the Americans before ultimately succumbing after two of its best players left.

When Vlade Divac, late of the Los Angeles Lakers and now gone to Charlotte, fouled out five minutes into the second half, and sharpshooting forward Dejan Bodiroga left with an injury a few minutes later, the Yugoslavs had no one near their caliber to send in. Quickly a 60-55 U.S. lead turned into a 95-69 rout.

That's exactly the way future Dream Teams will go on winning in the Olympics, if the rules don't change or the sport isn't dropped until the rest of the world catches up. And catching up won't be so easy if the best of the rest, like Olajuwon, keep migrating to the NBA and playing for the United States.

The Olympics don't even need men's basketball. There are too many sports as it is. And men's basketball already has a full year with the NBA schedule, a new all-European league, leagues in Australia, Latin America and all over Asia, plus a world championship tournament.

But if men's basketball does stay in the Olympics here are a couple of options to consider:

--Restrict NBA players to those with no more than three years experience.

--Require all teams to include at least three amateur, college or club-level players.

Going back to the old days of sending only college players out to mix it up under the boards is not a realistic alternative, if other countries are permitted to use their professionals. When the Soviet Union claimed the only two Olympic victories over the United States -- in the controversial 1972 final and in 1988 -- those Soviet players were hardly young amateurs. They were grown men paid by the state to play ball together year-round, and they were recruited from the many Soviet territories.

Even if post-Cold War Russian teams are no longer that strong, countries that are willing to pay their players to stay together for several years will have an advantage over a U.S. squad of college players. And teams, like Yugoslavia, with pros from different leagues, will be too strong for college kids.

"We were talking about it after the game," U.S. coach Lenny Wilkens said. "I have to be honest with you. There isn't a college (team) that could beat Yugoslavia. There's not one that could beat Lithuania. And I don't think there's one that could beat Argentina, the way they play.

"You have to give these people credit. They are 100 times better than they were in '92. The execution, the defense, the shooting. These teams came out and competed. They didn't show up here just to be here."

The Yugoslavs certainly displayed no awe of the Americans. Four years ago, when the original Dream Team was a novelty and there was special buzz seeing Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the same uniform, other teams asked them for autographs, posed for pictures with them and cherished their little gifts before games.

This time, when the Americans and Yugoslavs exchanged T-shirts before the game to keep up tradition, the Yugoslavs immediately flung the gifts into the stands. These players came here to beat the Americans, not simply treasure their moment with them.

The "awe factor," as Barkley has called the rest of the world's respect for the first Dream Team, is clearly a thing of the past. Yet, there's no way any country is going to beat any similar collection of NBA stars. The time for change is now.

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