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Saturday, September 30
Dream is lost for U.S. men's hoops

SYDNEY, Australia -- By now, we're used to ugly American stories. What we're not used to is ugly-Americans-playing-ugly-basketball stories.

Welcome to the Dream Team world, where all things are possible.

The U.S. men's hoops team won their third straight gold medal, but it might not happen again in 2004.

What else can you say when France -- France? -- is four points down with four minutes to play for the gold medal. Booing the Dream Team for behavior is one thing.

But for poor play?

After the Dreamers nearly lost to Lithuania in the previous game, Jason Kidd had said, "About 12 guys would have to change their identities. We'd all have to move as far away as possible. New Zealand would be my pick."

You could lose to France in many things. In cheese. In joie de vivre. In Jerry Lewis symposiums. But if you lost to France in basketball -- and maybe you'd watch, just on the odd chance -- New Zealand wouldn't be far enough away.

This was supposed to be anticlimax.

That's the new problem with the Dreamers. There's no climax. And there's no anticlimax.

There's just an 85-75 win and a not-very-satisfying gold medal, as expected.

I wonder which way you'd root if you watched. You want to put an end to jingoism? You want to work out just what it means about pride going before a fall? Bring on the Dream Team or, as one writer called them, the Preen Team.

Even NBA commissioner David Stern admitted, although not directly, there might be a problem here.

He said the players were reacting to the fact that they're under tremendous pressure not to lose -- while everyone else seems to want them to. "A lot of it," he said, "is a way for them to keep each other pumped up. We'll deal with some of the niceties later. That's a separate issue."

This is supposed to be the NBA's stage. They come to the Olympics to amuse us and to teach the world how to play the game. If they sell the odd Vince Carter jersey, that's OK, too.

It's one thing for dynasties to fall if they're the old Cuban baseball team. But not the Dreamers.

The problem with the post-Magic-Michael-Bird era is that it's hard to figure how the Dreamers can win. If they win too big, they're bullies playing boring games while embarrassing their opposition. If they don't win big enough, they're playing uninterested basketball, embarrassing themselves.

So, how do they win?

"Increasingly, it's becoming a no-win situation," Stern said before the France game.

He tried to make the point that the rest of the world is catching up. It must have been on hyperspeed. Do we really think France plays NBA quality basketball? They don't even have skyboxes there.

What we have here, though, is Vince Carter trashing-talking and posing after each slam. They also got to see him raising the No. 1 finger after nearly losing to Lithuania, which plays on the level of a good CBA team.

Isn't Carter supposed to be the next Michael Jordan? Do you see Jordan posing after nearly losing to the Clippers. (Bad example. I'm guessing Jordan never came close to losing to the Clippers.) Lithuania was one last-second three-point shot short of sending the Dreamers to the bronze-medal game.

When Stern watched the Lithuania game on tape -- and the shot that didn't go in -- he thought he was seeing the future when the world eventually catches up.

"I'd just like it to happen down the road when I'm watching from my retirement community," he said.

Win or lose, the Dream Team has lost. It's too bad for the classy guys on the team. It isn't only Marion Jones who has to worry about guilt by association.

I don't care if these guys stay in luxury hotel rooms, but let them play a million-dollar game. Isn't that why they're here?

It isn't to hear Vince Carter say, "We didn't lose. I don't care what the world thinks. Look at the scoreboard."

Here's the truth. It was after an early-round close game with Lithuania that a former University of Maryland player, Sarunas Jasikevicius, had said, "I think they're going to lose a game here. They're treating this like a vacation."

Yeah, and they're playing like Chevy Chase.

But lose? And wombats will fly. Wait, maybe wombats do fly.

OK, you can make your excuses, about which Americans aren't here. No Shaq. No Grant Hill. No Kobe Bryant. No Tim Duncan. But, let's face it, any NBA team would win here easily.

The players are mystified, which I find amusing. They expect the opposing players to ask for their autographs, which, by the way, most are willing to sell on eBay.

After this tournament, though, they might not bring in quite as much gold.

Mike Littwin is a writer for the Denver Rocky Mountain News


U.S. holds off late France rally to win gold

Lithuania wins third straight bronze medal

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