A dream deferred
Twelve of the world's greatest basketball players assembled in Sydney, Australia, two weeks ago to win a gold medal for the United States in the 2000 Olympics. It presumably would be a formality, but, unlike its two predecessors from 1992 and 1996, The Dream Team found the Olympics to be no cakewalk. Instead, it was two weeks of shame for the team, which nearly lost to Lithuania in the semifinals and then narrowly defeated France in the gold medal game. Despite the gold medal the team won, nothing positive came out of the experience for the Americans, and all they earned was a whole lot of embarrassment.
Regardless of one's opinion on sending professional athletes to the summer Games, the performance the men's team gave at the Olympics cannot be judged as anything but lackluster, cocky and disappointing. By most NBA standards the team was undersized, lacking a true center other than Alonzo Mourning (who is even undersized for most centers). But that is a far cry from any excuse this team deserves. Of course, it also takes time for a collection of guys who are used to being adversaries to gel and play as a cohesive unit. But to beat Lithuania by only two points in the semifinals and only to escape as a Lithuanian shot that would have won the game clanked off the left side of the rim is inexcusable. What occurred this summer was nearly the greatest tragedy in professional basketball, and that cannot be downplayed.
The problem with the U.S. Olympic Committee's decision to send NBA players to the summer Games is that it is not consistent with its decisions regarding other athletes. In few other summer events, save maybe for tennis, do professionals play. Granted the Major League Baseball season is going on during the Olympics, but even so, if those athletes are not sent to Sydney, why do we need to send the Dream Team?
The U.S. Olympic Committee is taking out its vengeance on the rest of the world for several heartbreaking losses to Russia in the 1970s. In 1998, the U.S. team failed to win the World Championships when college players were chosen to play because the pros could not play due to the NBA lockout. The fact is, however, that few Americans would be significantly upset if the men's hoops team did not come home with the gold.
In fact, I'd venture to say that they would be more interested in watching the games if a collection of non-professionals were playing. The games would be closer, more hard-fought, and on an even playing field. This year's Dream Team played with the emotion of a stack of wood. The team did its best impersonation of a collection of non-professionals, resulting in near defeat. Maybe we don't need to send college players after all! Just send some overpaid, overappreciated pro stars and watch them take for granted why they're playing in the summer Games in the first place; the sanctity of the gold medal is lost in the minds of the NBA stars who ventured to Sydney.
The ironic thing about this year's Olympics is that it featured some of the most intense finishes in Olympic basketball history, while at the same time featuring the Dream Team, which seems oxymoronic to a certain degree. So, in truth, the men's team gave America what it wanted: close, exciting games and a gold medal. Maybe we have nothing to be sorry for, even if they do.