At opposite ends of the Team USA locker room at the 1996 Atlanta Games sat Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen, two guys who usually couldn't agree on anything, agreeing on something they both thought would happen eight years down the road.
What they could see coming was Europe, Asia and South America dramatically increasing the number of world-class players they would send into international competition. What they could see coming, as the Dream Team members faded into retirement, was international teams with more depth and more experience than the United States was accustomed to facing. What they could see, crystal clear, was the time when the U.S. men's basketball team would struggle desperately in Olympic competition. Their forecasts appear to be more accurate than the presumptuous American basketball public is ready to accept.
So, the Olympics haven't even started, yet the number one question seems to be, "What in the world is wrong with the men's basketball team?"
The U.S. team, coached by Larry Brown and featuring Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson, has lost an exhibition by 17 points to Italy, which doesn't have one NBA player on its roster. Then the U.S. team needed a three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Germany, which did not qualify for the Olympics. A couple of nights ago in Istanbul, the U.S. team struggled to beat Turkey, which was without its best player, Orlando Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu. On Tuesday, the United States beat Turkey, 80-68, pulling away in the fourth quarter as the crowd jeered and whistled.
Iverson said the loss to Italy should serve as a wake-up call for the Americans. I agree with Iverson. But it also served as a wake-up call to everybody else that there are teams in the Olympic tournament that can beat the United States.
This is a surprise only to Americans.
This is what was supposed to happen. The sport's international governing body, FIBA, wanted to include NBA players in the 1992 Barcelona Games to provide the best worldwide competition possible. FIBA figured the only way to do that was to have the Dream Team set the standard for basketball excellence, which it did. The expected response was that the Europeans, Asians, South Americans and eventually some African nations would take what they learned and at some point try to use it to beat the teacher.
FIBA knew it, NBA Commissioner David Stern knew it, and every kid playing basketball in Croatia and Beijing and Buenos Aires knew it, too. The only folks who weren't paying attention live in Chicago and New York and Detroit and Los Angeles and Washington.
This is the state of basketball in the world this minute: The U.S. team is still very, very good. And certain teams in the Rest of the World are nearly as good.
If the United States had Shaq and Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, the team would be better, but not invincible. Remember, the 2000 team had Garnett, Alonzo Mourning, Ray Allen, Jason Kidd and Gary Payton and survived a last-second shot to beat Lithuania, 85-83, in the semifinal.
This team is an international virgin compared with that one, and therein lies its primary problem. Recently, Barkley left me a voice-mail message in which he said, "Before you write about our team, look up their international experience versus some of the other countries."
Of course, Barkley was on to something. He fully expects the United States to win and likes the fact that the team is loaded with young players who are excited about playing. "But the reason the gap is closing," Barkley said, "is because those international teams have a depth of good players now, and because they've been playing together internationally so damn long."
Here's what he's talking about: The 12 players on the U.S. team have a grand total of 116 games of international experience, and Duncan accounts for 40 of those games. Jose Ortiz, the former NBA player and veteran forward playing for Puerto Rico, has 150 games of international experience all by himself; his team, which plays the United States on Saturday, averages 43.3 games. Four U.S. players -- Lamar Odom, Amare Stoudemire, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade -- have no international experience.
The Chinese team -- featuring four players 6 feet 11 or taller, including 7-5 Yao Ming -- averages 120 games of international experience.
Italy might not have any NBA stars, but its players average 84.8 games of experience. The U.S. players? They average 9.7 games of experience, which in international play, with the difference in rules and style of play, amounts to staggering inexperience. They're lucky to have a coach as experienced as Brown.
Also troubling is a growing sentiment in the United States that this team somehow deserves to lose, like the group is a bunch of malcontents and knuckleheads who've come aboard. Actually, it's mostly a bunch of excited young kids who've happily agreed to play after more than a dozen NBA stars said no. There's nothing whatsoever surly or obviously arrogant about James or Carmelo Anthony or Wade, or Richard Jefferson, Emeka Okafor, Stoudemire or Shawn Marion. Who has ever said a bad word about Duncan? Whatever you like or don't like about Iverson, it's admirable that he came right out at the beginning of the selection process and virtually begged to play.
Oh, it's a flawed team in some respects. It could use at least one more pure shooter (which is hard to find among Americans these days). And anybody who thinks he can break down international zone defenses solely with dribble-penetration (this means you, Stephon Marbury) need look no further than the NBA Finals when Brown's Pistons took that tactic completely away from Bryant. It ain't gonna work.
While the U.S. team figures out how to play, most of the international teams already know how they want to play, and have employed one system for years and years. They've been playing U.S. professionals for 12 years now. The novelty of it is long gone. There is no intimidation factor the Americans have working in their favor. Lithuania, Argentina and Serbia and Montenegro believe they can win. Twelve years ago, it was designed for the Olympic basketball tournament to be just this competitive, and only a handful of people with real foresight could see this day coming so soon.