America's Dream Team Act Is Getting Old Fast

Matt Odette plans on watching a lot of swimming and track and field this Olympics. Respond to him at [email protected]

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Beginning in two months, we'll be treated to the most lopsided excuse for a sporting competition since the last time Nebraska ran up a football score on Baylor.

Twelve of the best basketball players in the world will take the court against a majority of players who can't even make it into their league.

Dream Team III is coming to an Olympic telecast near you.

It is amazing to imagine a team that has reserves like Jason Kidd and Alonzo Mourning. But watching them play will be about as exciting as last year's Big Game -- minus Deltha O'Neal.

America's superpower act in basketball has gotten old quickly. It was fun to watch Michael Jordan and Co. dismantle opponents in 1992, especially after the U.S. had finished with a bronze medal in 1988. By Atlanta in 1996 the act was a yawner, and in 2000 it's a charade.

Whatever lip service players give to their opponents, the 2000 Men's Senior National Team will cruise to a gold medal with an average margin of victory of at least 20 points. Whatever that does for national pride, it's bad for amateurism, bad for college basketball, and most of all, bad for the Olympics.

From 1934 to 1988, the last year the Olympic team was comprised entirely of collegians, the U.S. won nine of 11 possible gold medals. Even from 1972 onward, when American teams began to face foreign national teams with years of experience playing together, the U.S. brought home two of four golds. American collegians were capable of beating the best the world had to offer, and an Olympic berth was a reward for the top NCAA players.

Now college coaches can no longer pitch the Olympics to All-America recruits. A really outstanding player's best shot to make the Olympics is to turn pro, and the irony isn't lost on Cal coaching legend Pete Newell, who led the 1960 U.S. Olympic Team to a gold medal.

"The NBA has done a real disservice to the college basketball program," said Newell in an interview last fall. "They've taken the carrot away from the college coaches -- the possibility of playing in the Olympics.

"(Fielding college players) wouldn't have hurt us that much -- normally our top college players are well-above average NBA players. It would have helped our total amateur program."

Newell should know. His 1960 Olympic Team -- comprised entirely of amateurs -- was the Dream Team minus the multi-million-dollar contracts, without doubt the most dominant basketball team in Olympic history. The 1960 squad crushed competition en route to the gold medal, winning by an average of 42 points per game. By comparison, the 1992 Dream Team, complete with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Hakeem Olajuwon, won by an average margin of 28 ppg.

The United States will never field an amateur team as successful as Newell's, given the talent hemorrhage to the NBA and the growing popularity of the sport overseas. But a college team could surely be competitive -- and isn't competition what the Olympics are all about?

Amateurism may be on the way out in the Olympics, just as it appears to be on the ropes in college basketball. Communist bloc countries financed national teams throughout the Cold War, and the West followed as soon as it began to thaw. U.S. Olympic hockey and women's basketball teams are now full of professionals. Even in track and field, top athletes like Michael Johnson make a living off their sport, making it hard to call them amateurs.

"If you look around the world, the representatives of other countries are professional athletes," said Bob Driscoll, Cal's executive associate athletic director. "If the Olympics represent the best of the world, we should field our best."

But few will dispute that one of the greatest moments in Olympic history - at least from a U.S. standpoint - took place in a quiet town in upstate New York. At the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, a group of no-name American college kids shocked the best hockey team in the world, the pride of the Soviet Union. Try comparing the reaction to the U.S. hockey team's defeat of the Soviets to the national shrug that followed America's last two gold medals in basketball.

In the new Dream Team format, a very American drive to be the best conflicts with an equally American affection for the underdog. If the U.S. fielded an amateur team, no such tension would exist.

As the United States has made abundantly clear, and will prove again this year in Sydney, we have the best basketball players in the world. No one doubts it; the fact's certitude has reduced the Olympics to a formality. If the U.S. sent a college-dominated team to the 2006 Olympics, its basketball hegemony would not be compromised, it would help college basketball, and it would help the Olympics.

And it would make the games worth watching.


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