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The Inside Track | Mike Penner / SOUND AND VISION

Pistons Could Deliver a Gold-Medal Effort

June 22, 2004|Mike Penner

This is draft week in the NBA. Today, the Charlotte Bobcats draft their first cast of NBA castoffs. Thursday, the league gathers to draft a bunch of high school seniors, foreigners and Emeka Okafor. And on the clock, around the clock, are the Lakers, who have to draft a replacement for Phil Jackson, a trade package worthy of Shaquille O'Neal and a new contract attractive enough to deter Kobe Bryant from jumping to ... the Clippers?

Yes, Laker fans, these would seem to qualify as the worst of times.

The drafting shouldn't stop there. Right now, our Olympic basketball team doesn't have enough players for a five-on-five scrimmage -- although you could sell tickets for a workout between all the players who have said no to Athens.

Starting for the Once On The Olympic Roster But No Mores: Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal, Ray Allen. Starting for the Never Said Yes In The First Places: Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Elton Brand, Vince Carter, Kenyon Martin.

As it turns out, the Lakers weren't alone in their indifference to basketball played after May. All across the NBA, there's a whole lot of apathy going on.

Still, we will have to field a team in Athens. We qualified. We are the defending gold medalists -- although Lithuania nearly knocked off our plucky Not Sure We Really Want To Be Heres in the 2000 semifinals in Sydney.

So, how can we send a basketball team to Greece that won't embarrass the league, to say nothing of the republic?

Answer: Draft the Pistons.

That's right. Send the whole team.

Send Tayshaun Prince to the land of Alexander the Great.

Send Ben Wallace to the Afropolis.

Send Rasheed Wallace to Athens -- and make sure to bring a camera crew.

Aristotle. Plato. Socrates. Rasheed.

Don't you think NBC could wring some ratings out of that?

America already loves the Pistons. They are this generation's 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, except with more teeth. They defied great odds. They slew the unstoppable giant. They already defeated The Two Greatest Basketball Players In The World -- what's a few more in a few months' time?

Look, the Pistons are already halfway there. Larry Brown is coaching the Olympic team. Richard Hamilton and Ben Wallace are mulling late invitations to join the U.S. team. So what if they weren't among the first 25 or 30 to be asked? As the Pistons showed everyone, it's only where you finish that counts.

Don't stop with Rip and Big Ben. Chauncey Billups was just named most valuable player of the NBA Finals. Chauncey Billups! When is that ever going to happen again? Billups is on the roll of a lifetime. Ride the hot horse as long as you can. Let him shoot the lights out in Athens. Assuming the lights in Athens are wired and in place by then.

Prince just finished bottling up Bryant. Nobody could have predicted it. But everybody witnessed it. For the Lakers, it was mind-boggling. Still is. Exhibit A: Owner Jerry Buss, after calling Jackson the greatest coach in NBA history, told Jackson he'd rather have a different coach. Exhibit B: O'Neal, after reaching four NBA Finals in five seasons with the Lakers, told the Lakers he wants to be traded.

The Pistons shut down Shaq, confounded Kobe, completely discombobulated the Lakers.

You think they might be able to handle Spain, New Zealand, and Serbia and Montenegro?

Of course, we couldn't send all the Pistons. Technically speaking, Darko Milicic, a Serbian, and Mehmut Okur, who is Turkish, aren't eligible to play for the U.S. Olympic team. That's all right. The Pistons didn't seem to miss them during the Finals.

Unlike the Lakers, or every U.S. Olympic "dream team" since the first one, the Pistons play basketball the way America wants it played. They play defense. They play hard. They play as a unit. They never give up.

They also come from a town with lots of Greek restaurants, so the food at the Olympics wouldn't be a problem.

What's not to like?

Wouldn't it be good to actually root for the home team in August? Any home team, actually. We're not sending a men's soccer team to Athens; Mexico knocked us out in the qualifying round. We're not sending a baseball team, either. Mexico knocked us out there too. We've become bored with the "dream team" concept in basketball. Not our fault. The "dream teams" got bored with the idea long before the fans did.

Americans don't tend to rally around national teams the way other countries do. We throw our support behind the local pro team or the old alma mater, but rarely does the nation shut down and huddle around television set to root for Team USA.

In Sweden, an 85-year-old farmer last week credited the Swedish national soccer team with saving his life. Soren Gellerstedt told the Swedish newspaper Expressen that he survived for four days without food after his car broke down in the woods, subsisting on little more than the radio broadcast of the Swedish team's 5-0 victory over Bulgaria at the European Soccer Championship.

"The victory over Bulgaria saved my life," he said. "I had nothing to drink except rainwater, and I was desperately thirsty. The team gave me the best lift I could have had."

Send the Pistons to Athens. They probably won't save anybody's life. Saving the face of American basketball would be more than enough.

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