Tuesday, September 2, 2003

USA redeems itself in Olympic qualifier



By MIKE LOPRESTI
Gannett News Service

Bring on Spain. Bring on Yugoslavia. Bring on - heh, heh - France. American basketball has taken the bag off its head.

The NBA gang just went through the Olympic qualifying tournament like a road grader. Ten wins, no losses, average score of 101.7-70.8. No more Mr. Nice Guy. The short-pants mutiny against U.S. domination has momentarily been quashed.

Of course, one could quibble and mention the comeuppance that the Yanks even had to be there, tipping it up against the Virgin Islands. But that's what infamy got them last summer, when they waddled to sixth place in the World Championships in Indianapolis.

Ah, but no need rehashing old fiascoes. The statute of limitations for that crime must be past. Or at least it will be next summer in Athens.

"I won't feel redemption," Jermaine O'Neal was saying, "until I have an Olympic gold medal around my neck."

Here's what we know: The NBA troops have been fully awakened to the global threat against them.

Here's what we don't know: Why they fell asleep so quickly in the first place, only 10 years after the majesty of the Dream Team. And how long it will take them to nod off again.

"What happened in Indiana, it bothered everybody," Vince Carter said. "And by that I mean every American in the league, whether they were on that team or not."

For the moment, all is well. The U.S. blew through the field in Puerto Rico, with few anxious moments. The team from Argentina that inflicted the first wounds last summer had the lousy luck to show up in Sunday's gold medal game.

Never get in the way of a pack of millionaires with something to prove. It ended 106-73. The game films will be chilling viewing for the rest of the field in Greece. Argentina had a better chance of holding onto the Falklands.

But it was not the margins over the past fortnight that became worthy of applause. It was the manner.

The most humiliating part of the World Championships was why the Americans were beaten. They were outpassed, outcut, outdefended, outworked. The other guys seemed to understand the game better. That is only supposed to happen in team handball.

No simple influx of pricey talent would atone. The U.S. had to get back to playing basketball. This team had mostly new faces, and an entirely new purpose.

And so the numbers tell their tale. Where last summer's sloppy offense shot 46.3 percent, this team shredded opponents with a 56.2 percentage.

In one more game than last year, this team handed out 94 more assists. It doubled the rebounding margin.

Such figures are not cheaply formed. They must be earned, thought about, toiled for.

In 1992, the Dream Team was a showcase for the level of skill and talent in the NBA. It specialized in blowouts and autographs.

This team has a chance to prove something equally important. That American NBA players can still understand the value of the basics of their game, when so motivated. They can still do the little things. It is a complaint heard often during the regular season, and it turned into a roar last year when Argentina sliced them apart.

"I think everybody's back on notice," Jason Kidd said, "that we can play the game the right way."

That would be the best gift this U.S. team could give its sport, in an era where too many young players grow up believing the essence of basketball is a dunk on ESPN SportsCenter.

This was just a one-hemisphere party. There will be a world full of troublemakers in Athens.

"This," Tim Duncan said, "was a warm-up for us."

A heartening thought to this basketball land. Scary to everyone else.




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