SPORTS: Can U.S. pros reach the world hoops summit?

July 24, 2006

Team USA gathered in Las Vegas this past week to begin its attempt to reclaim America's rightful place-which would be first place-in international basketball.

Imagine, American hoopsters with a hill to climb. Who'd a thunk it?

Well, me, for one.

Anyone who was paying attention to international hoops-and I happen to be an aficionado-could see that America's dominance, so pronounced when the 1992 Olympic Dream Team pounded hapless opponents on its way to the gold medal, was slip, slip, slipping away.

Just eight years later, in the 2000 Olympics, American pros barely survived a missed Sarunas Jasikevicius threepointer in overtime to escape little Lithuania and go on to claim the gold.

Then came the Indianapolis disaster: that sixth-place flameout in the 2002 FIBA World Championships.

Some thought it was a fluke ... bad chemistry, poor coaching (George Karl), not enough preparation and tough injuries, starting with Reggie Miller's gimpy ankle.

But that notion was erased once and for all in the 2004 Athens Olympics, when Team USA limped to the bronze medal. The Yanks got clocked by Puerto Rico in the opener and later lost to Lithuania and Argentina, posting an overall record of just 5-3.

You couldn't blame coaching, though some did, given Larry Brown's unforgiving style. You could certainly blame poor preparation, horrendous chemistry and bad basketball habits, including the inability to either make or defend jump shots.

And you could also give

credit to the rest of the world for taking Naismith's game, wrapping it in a team concept, and laying waste to all those millionaire individualists from the USA who thought all they had to do to win was show up.

Instead, they were shown up.

Thus, while one embarrassing performance (the World Championships) might have been an accident, the Olympic debacle indicated a trend.

The aftermath caused much hand-wringing. It's one thing for America to suck in soccer, but basketball? Ah, the ignominy.

Now we'll see what all that contemplation and soul-searching has wrought. The elite of the NBA have been required to make a three-year commitment to represent the United States in international play, and they have assembled a 24-man all-star roster that includes most-but not all-of the NBA's best home-grown talent. Jerry Colangelo of the Phoenix Suns, one of the most respected men in all of American basketball, came on board to right the sinking ship. Mike Krzyzewski of Coach K Duke fame is the head coach, assisted by Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Phoenix's Mike D'Antoni and Portland's Nate McMillan.

They're preparing for the 2006 World Championships in Japan. Yes, that's the same competition that Americans in general and Hoosiers in particular couldn't have cared less about four years ago in Indy-until Team USA went down in flames.

That the gold medal game, won by Yugoslavia in overtime over Argentina before a sellout crowd in Conseco Fieldhouse, was one of the best I've ever witnessed mattered not.

Team USA had bombed, the championships drew poor crowds, and the entire event left a bad taste with everyone, including the sponsoring Indiana Sports Corp., which ended up with a couple of million dollars in red ink.

Now, we will see what rises out of the Indianapolis/Athens rubble. There remain questions, lots of them. Can the U.S. professionals adapt to the international game that puts substance ahead of style? Can Krzyzewski and his staff command respect and discipline or will this team, as did the Athens contingent, become a bunch of whiners and pouters? Will the pros stay true to their three-year commitments leading to the Beijing Olympics? Already, Lamar Odom is not participating because of the oft-cited "personal reasons" and Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce are taking a pass because of injuries.

And will those who are cut-the 24-man roster must be pared to 12-be willing to return again, and again, the next two years? Will the preparation be sufficient? In addition to training camps in Las Vegas and Hawaii, Team USA will play exhibitions in China and South Korea before arriving in Japan, but it is still essentially an all-star team.

And perhaps the most important question of all: Can any of these guys put playing for their country on the same level as playing for a paycheck?

It promises to be an interesting social experiment wrapped in an athletic competition. Even with the emergence of numerous international stars in the NBA, no one questions that the world's best basketball talent is born in the USA. But elite international competition is not just about talent. It's about being a team, as well as preparation, adaptability and sacrifice.

The Yanks will need it all to stage a comeback.



Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com.
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