- The Washington Times - Friday, September 6, 2002

The last tango with Argentina was inevitable.

The only surprise is that it took the rest of the world 59 games to impose a blemish on the NBA players.

It could have been Lithuania in the 2000 Sydney Games. Or Brazil in the 2001 Goodwill Games.

The NBA is inclined to take notes and respond to the challenge, if that is not too much to ask. The latter is the qualifying sentiment around the U.S. team at the World Basketball Championships in Indianapolis. The NBA players showed up a couple of minutes before the tournament and pretended to be interested. Anything else was too much to ask. There were other considerations. Shaquille O'Neal has a bad toe, to point out the obvious.

This is not America's best team. This is not even a team. This is just a collection of talent that decided to beat the rest of the NBA to training camp. The distinction between the U.S. and the world shows.

The question of focus, the leading word in the NBA dictionary, is part of it. A lack of preparation is still another part. It also might help if the U.S. team relied less on its advantages in speed, quickness and jumping ability and reacquainted itself with the game's fundamentals.

The sight of the Argentina players was an old sight, given the age of their backdoor cuts to the basket and pick-and-roll plays. There are a lot of effective ways to play basketball, none better than the Red Auerbach Celtics of the '50s and '60s. The serial dribblers of the NBA have dismissed the old-school lessons in honor of ESPN's "SportsCenter." The loss is all theirs.

The marvel of John Stockton and Karl Malone is also an indictment of the professional game, stuck with a preponderance of 85-80 outcomes. Excuse the reference to the two old guys in Utah. They are hardly fashionable, just instructive. Their absurd staying power is prompted by the reluctance of too many of the young to adopt what is tried and true. The game's fundamentals are just not sexy enough.

Mike Bibby is possibly the next Stockton, and possibly as bland, if being the antithesis of Jason Williams qualifies as bland. The shame is that there is not a line of point guards at Stockton's door.

A stupid basketball trick is commercially satisfying, not unlike a stupid pet trick, both a forced attempt to be special. The extraneously emotional sorts desperate to be the man are in the same family. Being special usually looks easy to those who are special. You could watch old clips of Michael Jordan to get an idea.

The bad-man mind-set is failing to impress the world, mostly because the world has done the math. A layup by the world equals a dunk shot by the U.S., amazing as that proposition is. The world probably has viewed many of the lowlights that pass as fighting in the NBA anyway, starting with Jeff Van Gundy's joyride on Alonzo Mourning's ankle.

Jermaine O'Neal tried to be rough with Luis Scola after his dunk attempt was blocked in the first quarter. That made three missed points in O'Neal's case, counting the point of any game. It was a sign of where the Americans were in spirit, which was the playground. At least George Karl, the U.S. coach, is accustomed to that after the last 82 games with the Bucks.

The U.S. team has been willing to harass the opposition into turnovers that lead to fastbreak opportunities. Argentina's unwillingness to be cooperative to that ploy exposed the limitations of the U.S. team.

There was no backup plan, only a rising level of anxiety among the red, white and blue. It was not seven-point close. The Argentines led all the way and came out of it still looking for a game. Good for them. Their economically strapped countrymen could use the uplifting news, especially the Argentine president, whoever it is this week and whoever it may be next week.

The world's fear of the NBA has abated since 1992, the advent of the Dream Team, the only Dream Team, really. In fact, the world is filling more and more of the roster spots in the NBA, which David Stern usually celebrates as a marketing tool around the globe. Even the one billion-plus in China are now apt to have an interest in buying NBA apparel.

Somewhere across the globe, there is another Vlade Divac in the making, and he is falling down wherever he goes, perfecting the flop and the cries of anguish that complement it, if not adorning his jersey with capsules of fake blood that burst on imaginary contact.

This is one downside to the globe's march on the NBA, aside from the loss to Argentina.


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