IF THE WORLD HAD A DREAM

How do you stop the strong­est U.S. bas­ket­ball team since 1992? Maybe with an In­ter­na­tional Dream Team fea­tur­ing the best from the last quar­ter-cen­tury.

National Post (Latest Edition) - - Sports - Na­tional Post , with files from news ser­vices

It is hard to be­lieve that Ar­gentina is the reign­ing Olympic bas­ket­ball cham­pion. Or that Spain is the world cham­pion

Back in 1992, when NBA pro­fes­sion­als joined the Olympics, it seemed ab­surd for an­other coun­try to even think about be­ing com­pet­i­tive with the team that in­cluded Hall of Famers such as Michael Jor­dan, Magic John­son and Larry Bird.

“I know ex­actly what is go­ing to hap­pen in the Olympics — the United States is go­ing to beat ev­ery­body by 25 or 30 points,” Croa­t­ian Toni Kukoc, later an NBA star, said at the time. “On a bad day, they will win by only 10 or 15. Why? Be­cause the NBA play­ers are out of this world.”

Eleven pro­fes­sion­als and Duke Univer­sity star Chris­tian Laet­tner made up the first Dream Team. The Amer­i­cans went 8-0. They won by an av­er­age of 43.8 points per game, in­clud­ing a 32-point mar­gin over the Croa­t­ians in the gold-medal game. Coach Chuck Daly never called a time­out.

Po­lit­i­cal up­heaval in Europe con­trib­uted to the im­bal­ance of the 1992 tour­na­ment, with the breakups of the Soviet Union and Yu­goslavia split­ting two of in­ter­na­tional bas­ket­ball’s pow­er­houses into sev­eral weak­ened off­shoots.

But the gap closed quickly. Twelve years later, the Amer­i­cans fell to third be­hind Ar­gentina and Italy. Some blamed Amer­ica’s fall on self­ish play by fat and happy stars and a de­clin­ing em­pha­sis on fun­da­men­tal bas­ket­ball skills. But the global growth in the game, spurred by the glam­our of the orig­i­nal Dream Team, played as big a role in the change.

The U.S. is fight­ing back this year with a ros­ter that in­cludes Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Chris Bosh. The Amer­i­cans went 5-0 in the pre­lim­i­nary round, win­ning by an av­er­age of 32.2 points. They beat the Span­ish by 37 points, and Ger­many, their last op­po­nent be­fore the play­off round, by 49.

Many have al­ready started to com­pare this so­called Re­deem Team to the 1992 Dream Team.

“They’re prob­a­bly the sec­ond-best team the U.S. has had,” Chris Ka­men, an Amer­i­can play­ing for Ger­many, told re­porters af­ter a 106-57 loss. “They’re so strong, phys­i­cal and ath­letic … There’s no one guy dom­i­nat­ing, they all are. Who do you stop?”

They way this tour­na­ment is go­ing, it might take an­other Dream Team — made up of in­ter­na­tional stars — to slow the Amer­i­cans.

Since 1992, the num­ber of non-U.S. Olympians who played in, or would go on to play in, the NBA has steadily in­creased. The list boasts a pair of league MVPs, Canada’s Steve Nash and Ger­many’s Dirk Now­itzki, a rookie of the year in Spain’s Pau Ga­sol, and all-stars such as Ar­gentina’s Manu Gi­no­bili, and China’s Yao Ming.

But none of those play­ers beat the U.S. four years ago. The Amer­i­cans lost to Lithua­nia, to Puerto Rico, to Greece.

Even if they joined forces, they might not beat the U.S. this year.

“They wanted to make a state­ment,” Ga­sol said last week. “And they’ve made it.”

JOSE CALDERON Spain Point guard had 17 points in win over gold medal­list Ar­gentina in 2004 and 19 in quar­ter-fi­nal loss to U.S. Rap­tors star led NBA in as­sists- to-turnover ra­tio last year.

MANU GI­NO­BILI Ar­gentina Shoot­ing guard was Olympic tour­na­ment MVP in 2004, lead­ing Ar­gentina to gold. Three-time NBA cham­pion with San An­to­nio.

PEJA STOJAKOVIC Yu­goslavia, Ser­bia/Mon­tene­gro Small for­ward was an Olympian in 2000 and helped Yu­goslavia to the 2002 world ti­tle. Three-time NBA all-star.

DIRK NOW­ITZKI Ger­many Power for­ward was a first-time Olympian this year. Was MVP of 2002 world cham­pi­onships, when Ger­many won bronze. First NBA MVP from Europe.

DETLEF SCHREMPF Ger­many Power for­ward av­er­aged a dou­ble-dou­ble in 16 games at the 1984 and 1992 Olympics. Three-time NBA all-star.

YAO MING China Cen­tre made all-tour­na­ment team at his sec­ond Olympics by av­er­ag­ing 18.2 points in 2004. Peren­nial NBA all-star since be­ing drafted first over­all in 2002.

VLADE DI­VAC Yu­goslavia, Ser­bia/Mon­tene­gro Cen­tre won two Olympic sil­vers and two world golds. The first nonAmer­i­can draft pick of the L.A. Lak­ers had a 16-year NBA ca­reer.

TONI KUKOC Yu­goslavia, Croa­tia Small for­ward won Olympic sil­ver in 1988 and 1992. Part of sec­ond Chicago Bulls three-peat (1996-98), Kukoc won NBA sixth man hon­ours in 1996.

DRAZEN PETRO­VIC Yu­goslavia, Croa­tia Shoot­ing guard scored 24 points against U.S. in 1992, and won three Olympic medals. Av­er­aged bet­ter than 20 points per game in two NBA sea­sons.

STEVE NASH Canada Point guard led Canada to a 5-2 record in Syd­ney in 2000, when only the U.S. won more games. Won back-to-back NBA MVP awards with the Phoenix Suns. ARVY­DAS SABO­NIS Soviet Union, Lithua­nia Cen­tre led Sovi­ets to gold at 1988 Olympics,...

OS­CAR SCH­MIDT Brazil Shoot­ing guard led Olympics in scor­ing in 1988, 1992 and 1996, and has seven of the 10 high­est-scor­ing games in the Games. Drafted by New Jer­sey, but never played in NBA.

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