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Olympic basketball is interesting for 3:29

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© St. Petersburg Times, published September 18, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia -- Maybe the hype machine is correct. Maybe this is a Dream Team after all.

I am sitting at a basketball court, and I am dreaming. Nice dreams. Sweet dreams. Chinese dreams.

On the floor below, China's Olympic basketball team is on fire. Ming "The Human Eraser" Yao, a 7-foot-5 center, has just rejected a shot by some guy named Vince Carter, sending the ball bounding somewhere toward New Zealand. At half court, Weidong "Pistol" Hu grabbed the ball, then snapped it toward Zhizhi "Top" Wang, who slammed the ball.

For one brief, exciting moment, it was happening. The world was standing toe to toe with the United States men's basketball team. Better than that, it was standing on the U.S. team's toes.

Three minutes, 29 seconds into the game and the score was China 13, U.S. 7, and not to sound unpatriotic, but wheee. The Chinese, dressed in red and white and living under an oppressive regime -- sort of like an old Indiana team -- had won over the crowd. Hunker down, you hairy Chinese, and all that.

The Dream Team was losing. Well, actually, the son of the son of the Dream Team was losing. Dream Team III. Heck, by the third installment, even The Godfather movies were bad. Think about it. This is the Deep Space Nine of Dream Teams.

And so you sat there, hoping for something interesting, something noteworthy, to happen. That would be the Dream Team losing, or at least stumbling somewhere along the way. Which would be, like, cool.

As of now, the Dream Team is the biggest bully on the planet. Heck, even Tiger loses sometimes. But the American basketball players keep rolling along, naming their score, taking no prisoners, on their way to another gold medal.

This time is no different. Oh, China showed a bit of spunk early, maybe enough to make you think its celebrated Great Wall (the Chinese go 7-5, 7-1 and 6-11 across the front) was a metaphor for the world rising to meet its challenge.

But it never lasts long, and it didn't last long this time. Alonzo Mourning turned into a bull in a China shop, so to speak, and the United States rolled to a 119-72 victory, just another 47-point margin on its way to the engravers, and the opposition had turned into the Beijing Generals. (And wouldn't you think that with a population of 1.25-billion, the Chinese would have a little depth?) Basketball, as the Olympics knows it, remained duller than watching air rifle.

The Dream Team? Be honest. Have you ever had a dream in which you wondered what would happen if Vin Baker and Antonio McDyess and Shareef Abdur-Rahim got together on the court? (If you did, please report to the nearest hospital and ask for help).

Don't get me wrong. Once upon a time, we all loved the Dream Team. Americans were jobbed in Munich in '72, and they were exposed as underaged and underdeveloped in Seoul in '88. It wasn't hard to imagine Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan playing together, making things right. Why not? Those guys had won every title you can imagine.

Not this bunch. Not a single player on the new Dream Team has won an NBA championship, or an NCAA championship, or an MVP award, or an Academy Award, or a Pulitzer, or a Grammy, or an Emmy, or a class presidency. Still, they are basketball players, born in the USA, forged in the NBA. And if you, too, dream of a time another nation might win a gunfight, then forget it.

"It probably won't happen in my lifetime," said Alonzo Mourning, the center. Barring cryogenics, probably not in yours, either.

Oh, people wish for it to happen. Every opponent the United States plays becomes the crowd favorite, partly because people wish to witness a happening, partly because the Dream Teamers have a rather loutish history. Even as China made its early surge, the crowd began to chant its name.

"People want to see Goliath fall," Abdur-Rahim said.

Ask yourself: The score is 80-79, someone else's favor, 18 seconds left. What do you want to happen? Do you want the NBA guys to win? Or do you want to see the upset?

"When you're on top, people want to drag you down," Mourning said. "People don't want us to win. They don't want Bill Gates to have all that money. Even the government doesn't want that."

It was for that reason that when the U.S. team showed up in Melbourne last week to play a scrimmage game, Jason Kidd and Steve Smith were booed. And Mourning was annoyed, which, of course, is nothing new.

"They disrespected the best basketball team in the world," Mourning said. "We created this game. We developed this game. We're the masters of this game, the way the Scandinavians are the masters of downhill skiing, or the way the Kenyans are masters of distance running. We know what people have been writing. That we're boring. That we aren't that talented. But to me, this is the best defensive team ever assembled for Olympic basketball."

That, at least, may be an improvement. The first two forays into the Olympics, the U.S. pros were more offensive than anything else. There has been an Attila and the Huns quality to the Americans. Remember Charles Barkley's elbow to the head of an Angolan opponent? Remember him professing fear the opponent might throw a spear at him? Remember Reggie Miller grousing about the room service in Atlanta? Remember Shaquille O'Neal, fresh off signing a $119-million contract, proclaiming that he had been a success at every level except college or pros? Remember this off-season, when one NBA player after another found an excuse not to make the trip to Australia?

Good news. One night in and absolutely zero international incidents.

"Who knows what Charles Barkley would have done," Kidd said.

Let's be honest. It isn't the players' fault they're better. It isn't their fault they're here; they were invited. But most of us have been over the Dream Teams for some time because the Dream Teams have seemed so disinterested in their surroundings.

Who knows? Maybe this one is different. Take Mourning, who said he had chills walking onto the court. Give the guy credit. He wants to be here. He will leave Sunday to fly back to Miami for the birth of his daughter, then return to Sydney. Without him, of course, the U.S. team will be handicapped severely.

Heck, it might win by only 40.

Olympics 2000

WHERE: Sydney, Australia.

TV: 10 a.m.-noon, 7 p.m.-midnight, 12:40-2:10 a.m., Ch. 8; 10 a.m.-5 p.m., MSNBC; 5-9 p.m., CNBC.

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