Wednesday, June 9, 2004

The ever-dissolving U.S. men’s basketball team is down to Tim Duncan, two head cases and the curious.

Theirs is the Halfhearted Team, distant from the dominance of the Dream Team in 1992, in the compromised company of Carlos Boozer.

This is not to dismiss the sturdy development of the 2002 second-round draft pick from Duke. Boozer just does not rise to the level of Olympian, except in the desperation of USA Basketball.

This is another sign of the embarrassment ahead in Athens.

The U.S. is certain to be done, finished, a basketball favorite in only its mind.

Its victory will be in securing enough bodies to send a full team to Athens in August, a daunting proposition, considering the high attrition rate.

The best U.S. team is staying home, noting the withdrawals of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett andTracy McGrady, followed by the second tier of Karl Malone, Jason Kidd, Ray Allen, Vince Carter, Elton Brand, Kenyon Martin, Jermaine O’Neal and Mike Bibby.

Shaquille O’Neal is missing from the list of the fickle and hurt because of foresight and imaginary fatigue. O’Neal has reduced his basketball calendar to May and June in recent seasons, excluding the occasional surprise appearance.

The quality of the missing promises to be the cry of the disappointed after the U.S. is defeated on the world stage.

George Karl led the cry two summers ago after the U.S. was relegated to sixth place in the World Championships. Now the burden falls to Larry Brown, a craftier coach than Karl. His scary prescription could be to remake the team in the manner of the sleep-inducing Pistons, so long as Allen Iverson agrees to it.

As far as reruns go, Brown and Iverson are hoping to exceed their history of unexcused tardy slips. Fortunately, practice is a fleeting demand of USA Basketball, which is just how Iverson likes it.

This is no way to win a gold medal, or even a bronze, in the modest case of the U.S.

The New World Order in basketball is becoming harder to ignore on the night of the NBA Draft each June. Soccer may maintain its hold on most of the globe, but a young man with an overactive pituitary gland inevitably merges his genetics with the proper arena.

Hakeem Olajuwon and Dirk Nowitzki were both one-time goalies who found basketball with a measuring tape.

The basketball progress of the globe has been unyielding since the celebration of the Dream Team in Barcelona in 1992. That was an exercise stuffed with international awe and idolatry around the well-known faces of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

It was hardly a competition in the traditional sense. It was a call to the world to embrace basketball, the call answered incrementally in each succeeding competition.

Eight years later, in Sydney, the U.S. was pushed far harder than thought possible by little, old Lithuania.

Now the hard blow of reality is just up ahead, with the U.S. team in the clutches of uncertainty and barely in the mood to retain its basketball supremacy.

The fallout this time will be more pronounced than two years ago, if only because of the platform.

You can see the bellyaching coming, along with the usual demand to improve the USA Basketball system.

USA Basketball is innocent in at least one respect.

The Summer Games mean a whole lot more to the rest of the basketball world than to the leading players of the NBA.

It always has been so, except for the original Dream Team, a novelty at the time after the U.S. lost with its collegiate cast in 1988.

Not that the apathetic sentiments of O’Neal and the rest are hard to grasp. They already play in the premier basketball league on the planet. All the others are merely glorified farm systems of the NBA.

In a sense, the best of the NBA’s best have nothing to prove to the world. If this U.S. contingent stumbles as expected in Athens, there will be something to prove in four years.

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