As the U.S. men's senior national basketball team--12 NBA and collegiate stars--readies itself for the two-week Olympic qualifying tournament beginning Wednesday in Puerto Rico, there has been no talk among players that these are games that they should not even be playing.
Had things gone as planned, the U.S. team would have won the gold medal at last summer's world championships in Greece and automatically qualified for the 2000 Games in Sydney, making this trek unnecessary.
Things didn't quite work out that way, though.
With the NBA threatening to lock out players last year, the players union said the NBA players on the U.S. team--most of whom are on this squad--probably would boycott the world championships.
In turn, USA Basketball, the umbrella group that selects the team, dropped the NBA players and went with a team comprising Continental Basketball Association stars, which included Jimmy King, a member of Michigan's Fab Five, and Charlotte Hornets forward Brad Miller.
That team won the bronze medal, not good enough to qualify for the Olympics. The NBA players who were supplanted were locked out of work for three months and ended up playing a 50-game schedule, the first abbreviated season in NBA history.
"I haven't heard much talk about that situation," U.S. Coach Larry Brown of the Philadelphia 76ers said. "These guys are still real excited about playing and they're excited about the guys on this team."
Tim Duncan of the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs and Allan Houston of the second-place New York Knicks headline a team that includes Washington Wizards first-round draft pick Richard Hamilton. Tim Hardaway, Vin Baker, Gary Payton, Steve Smith, Kevin Garnett, Tom Gugliotta, Jason Kidd, Elton Brand and Wally Szczerbiak round out the squad.
Should the U.S. finish among the top two teams in the Americas qualifying tournament it will advance to the Olympics with the roster expected to remain intact.
Other NBA players who will compete in the tournament in Puerto Rico include Dallas Mavericks guard Steve Nash (Canada), Vancouver Grizzlies forward Felipe Lopez (Dominican Republic) and Denver Nuggets forward Carl Herrera (Venezuela).
Yugoslavia, Australia, Italy, Spain, France, Lithuania and Russia already have qualified for the Olympics. Teams from Asia, Africa and the Pacific Rim are holding or will stage elimination games to determine their Olympic representatives.
"We can win eight straight games [in Puerto Rico], lose a semifinal game and not qualify," said Brown, who replaced Houston Rockets Coach Rudy Tomjanovich after Tomjanovich recently was hospitalized for dehydration and fatigue. "I don't want us to mess this thing up."
To make sure, Brown will keep his NBA players on the floor until things are secure. Hamilton, along with Brand (Duke/Chicago Bulls) and Szczerbiak (Miami, Ohio/Minnesota Timberwolves) will not get to play much, Brown said.
However, they will be more prepared than many of their colleagues when the NBA season starts simply by practicing against some of the NBA's best players. Hamilton, a shooting guard, has been impressive thus far, Brown said.
"Richard is going to be fun to watch in [the NBA]," Brown said. "He can run and change ends. He is going to be a player."
With that, the NBA neophytes were administered a rugged baptism to pro ball during workouts last week in Orlando.
"The other day, Elton was out on the break, filled the wing and went in to dunk and Vin Baker sailed about four feet over him, totally throwing him off," Brown said. "I know he was never challenged like that in college.
"The next trip down the court, Szczerbiak was trying to get open on the wing and one of the pro players kept him from catching the ball and got physical with him and he didn't know how to react. . . . All that is going to make their adjustment to the NBA so much easier."
The teams the U.S. could face--Uruguay, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Panama, Venezuela, Argentina, Canada, Puerto Rico and Cuba to name a few--likely will get pushed around like Hamilton, Brand and Szczerbiak. However Brown warns that nothing is certain in international play.
"You never know with two referees, a 40-minute game, a 30-second shot clock and a hostile environment," said Brown, who played on the U.S. Olympic basketball team in 1964 and served on the coaching staffs of two other teams that played internationally. "I don't care if you have the greatest team in NBA history. It's hard to win because you never know the way the game will be officiated.
"Naturally we're going to have the best players by far but most of the other teams have been together a lot longer and the variables are something I have no control over."
USA Men's Senior
Player; Pos.; Ht.; Last year's team
Vin Baker; F; 6-11; Seattle SuperSonics
Elton Brand; F; 6-8; Duke
Tim Duncan; C; 7-0; San Antonio Spurs
Kevin Garnett; F; 6-11; Minnesota Timberwolves
Tom Gugliotta; F; 6-10; Phoenix Suns
Richard Hamilton; G; 6-6; Connecticut
Tim Hardaway; G; 6-0; Miami Heat
Allan Houston; G; 6-6; New York Knicks
Jason Kidd; G; 6-4; Phoenix Suns
Gary Payton; G; 6-4; Seattle SuperSonics
Steve Smith; G; 6-8; Atlanta Hawks
Wally Szczerbiak; G; 6-8; Miami, Ohio
Head Coach: Larry Brown, Philadelphia 76ers
Assistant Coaches: Gene Keady, Purdue; Tubby Smith, Kentucky.