King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The U.S. basketball team gets smoked by Italy. Italy?! Good. At last the Dream Team era is over and Olympic hoops will be worth watching.

By Salon Staff
Published August 4, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

The U.S. basketball team had its clock cleaned 95-78 in a pre-Olympic exhibition Tuesday by that noted hoops power Italy, which boasts nary an NBA player, so it must be time for a nationwide chorus of that new summertime favorite, "The Let's Get Rid of the Overhyped, Pampered, Egomaniac Dream Team and Go Back to Having College Kids Play in the Olympics Mambo."

In which case the final score would have been more like 95-50, Italy.

Cha cha cha.

I grew up in the era before NBA players were allowed in the Olympics, which ended in 1988. Four years after that, the original Dream Team won the gold in Barcelona. Like most people who remember those times, I think, I look back fondly on the days of college all-stars representing the USA.

But they aren't coming back. And that's good.

It used to be fun to not know some of the players too well as the Games started, then get more familiar with them as the tournament progressed. Remember, this was before there were five college basketball games on TV every night, so even when the team was made up almost exclusively of big-time players from big-time programs, as it wasn't always but was in 1976, you might have only seen them play a few times in college games even if you were a pretty dedicated fan.

In that way, though to a lesser extent, basketball was fun the way most Olympic sports are. You find yourself living and dying with some athlete you'd never heard of two weeks before. And an added bonus: Some of these guys were going to go on and become NBA stars.

Sure, I knew Adrian Dantley and Quinn Buckner in '76, but even some of the North Carolina stars, like Phil Ford and Walter Davis, were hazy for me, a West Coast boy. And while I admit I was pretty young in 1972 -- I was 9 -- I don't remember seeing Doug Collins play a lot of games for Illinois State, do you?

All of this made up for the fact that Olympic basketball lacked much drama, that unless the Soviets had control of the clock the Americans were pretty sure of winning.

Good times. But if you think a return to college players is going to mean a return to them, you're kidding yourself. It's a different world now.

With the elite players skipping college or leaving after a year or two, college all-stars aren't what they used to be. And in the meantime, the rest of the world has learned to play basketball a little bit.

If the American players didn't know that from playing in a league that has Yao Ming and Dirk Nowitzki and Andrei Kirilenko and Peja Stojakovic and I could go on but I won't, and they didn't learn it Tuesday against Italy, they'll get another lesson Wednesday when they play Nowitzki and the Germans -- in Germany. School will be in session for the rest of the month.

I didn't buy into the Dream Team in '92. I didn't like the idea of American NBA players beating the snot out of everybody else in the world. Where was the excitement, the drama, in that? It was a breast-beating, flag-waving, patriotic time, just after the first Gulf War, and I felt that the Dream Team hype was a part of that, a petulant response to the Americans' first-ever legitimate Olympic basketball loss, in 1988.

Oh yeah? we seemed to be saying as a nation. Well, we're going to go get our big brother, and then you'll be sorry! The average final score in the Dream Team's eight games was 117-74. I was supposed to enjoy a 116-48 win over Charles Barkley's pals from Angola, or the Dream Team's closest call, a 32-point win over Croatia in the gold medal game, just because I got to see Magic and Bird and Jordan and Barkley play on the same team? Pass.

But here's the thing: This business of the U.S. getting its ass kicked by Italy is fantastic. Now that other countries are turning out top-notch ballplayers in bunches, the Olympics are a real tournament. It isn't just a two-week coronation. If the Americans are going to win, they're really going to have to play.

I'll make no phony claims of objectivity and detachment. I'm an American boy and I want to see the Americans win the gold medal. I'll be rooting for them. I don't know enough about the other teams yet, or even about the U.S. team, to know if Tuesday's loss was a wake-up call, a result of the squad only having been together for one week or a real sign of things to come. Maybe Tim Duncan, LeBron James and company are just overmatched, but I kind of doubt it.

It sure will be fun to watch, though. An all-star team of NBA players actually being challenged by their opponents, actually having to work hard and play ball if they want to win. If they do, it'll really be something to celebrate.

Let's hear it for the rest of the world, for most of the best players on the planet playing competitive games against each other. May the best team win, and let's hear it for us not knowing which team that is before the Games start.

Previous column: The death of track and field

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