Dream Team will rule the game

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - The question was addressed to Karl Malone, and it was delivered with all the solemnity the situation deserved.

''I'm from Denmark,'' a man told the American basketball star. ''I'm kind of new in this business. How come you get two points every time you score?''

The Mailman laughed, and then he blathered on a little about Dr. James Naismith, before finally settling on the simple answer.

''Those,'' he said, ''are the rules of the game, my man,''

The Olympic Dream Team has changed its makeup the second time around, but the script is strikingly similar. America might be bored by the sheer inevitability of Team Anticlimax, but the rest of the world remains remarkably star-struck. Mystique, it turns out, sells better than mystery.

The U.S. basketball team was assembled for its pre-competition press conference Thursday morning, and the 600-seat theater was so crowded with the professionally curious that the proceedings were simulcast to two adjacent conference rooms.

Australian journalists gallantly grilled Charles Barkley. The Chinese sought to pin down Penny Hardaway. The Nigerians interrogated Hakeem Olajuwon. Bottom line: The National Basketball Association made a few more international inroads.

What Americans fail to understand about the Dream Team phenomenon is that it isn't about us anymore. It is about selling sneakers in Stockholm and T-shirts in Tokyo. It's about marketing, my man.

International appeal

One of the reasons Shaquille O'Neal was able to sign a $120 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers - dwarfing any deal ever made in professional baseball or football - is that basketball has become America's most successful sports export. The Dream Team has given the NBA a formidable foothold in the global marketplace.

That wasn't supposed to be the point. Not initially. Even when its international rivals clamored to get creamed by the NBA stars, USA Basketball resisted resorting to a roster of professionals. The Dream Team was ostensibly formed to reclaim America's reputation for basketball dominance, a reputation badly eroded in 1988 when John Thompson went to Seoul without a strong outside scoring threat and came home with a bronze medal.

It was overkill, of course. Putting Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson on the same team satisfied the national bloodlust, but it reduced the basketball tournament in Barcelona to a farcical exhibition. Opponents viewed their games against the Dream Team as photo opportunities rather than authentic competition, and some players went so far as to strike poses in the middle of play if a camera might catch them guarding Jordan or Johnson.

The '96 Dreamers have somewhat less starpower, but they can be counted on to supply no more suspense. Barkley says the current squad is not quite as strong as the 1992 team, yet its players are younger, nearer their peak. They should be a little quicker in the backcourt, and slightly more muscular near the basket.

Skills vs. legends

''The team in '92 had more legend-like players than this team,'' said Lenny Wilkens, the U.S. coach. ''This is a different type of team. The '92 team was probably a better outside shooting team. This team has more versatility.''

Not that it matters all that much. USA Basketball could have picked any number of poisons, and achieved Olympic supremacy. Next time around, just to make things interesting, perhaps the U.S. should send a team consisting entirely of point guards. Or, better yet, Dennis Rodman.

Presently, there is no pretense of drama. Now that O'Neal has committed to the Lakers, the most pressing question concerning the '96 Dream Team is whether it can make winning look like work. Plainly, the Dream Team is not poring over scouting reports.

Shaquille O'Neal was asked Thursday what he thought of the basketball program in Peru.

''Peru has a team?'' Shaq said. ''A basketball team? Hi, Peru.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published July 19, 1996.