Thursday, September 5, 2002
Pros, not collegians, must polish up Team USA
By Jay Bilas
Special to ESPN.com
Now that the latest version of the "Dream Team" -- albeit a watered down version -- has finally lost a game in international competition, a familiar cry to bring back the college kids is being heard. While it is a noble goal to have innocent young amateurs representing our country, the reality is that our college kids would be overmatched by the men representing the world's top teams.
Most foreign teams feature seasoned veterans in international competition. College kids simply don't have the experience to compete against the best teams at the level of the World Championships or Olympics. Lack of practice time and preparation would just make the task that much tougher. Thrown into pressure packed international tournaments against mature professionals, without knowing each other's games, would leave collegians with little chance to win gold.
Our amateur teams should, and do, play against similar age groups. Our best and most experienced players, those found in the NBA, should compete at the highest levels of international basketball. Anything less would guarantee unacceptable results. Once professionals were allowed into the Olympics, they were effectively here to stay. That is one bell that cannot be un-rung.
The key to USA Basketball success remains selecting individual players that will form the best
possible team. The knowledge and experience of playing together over time
is an important component in forming a cohesive unit.
It's clear USA Basketball does not currently foster an atmosphere of building the best team, whether it plays collegians or pros. But it's not completely the fault of USA Basketball, rather a reality of dealing with highly paid professionals. To place the best possible "team" on the floor in international competition, USA Basketball needs to select its Olympic team at least three years in advance of the competition, allowing that team to play together in all international competitions leading up to the Olympic Games.
As a practical matter, putting such a system for choosing Team USA into place is all but impossible. With highly paid pros in the mix, the risk of injury or becoming worn down, not to mention giving up leisure and family time to compete for our country, are all obstacles for NBA pros to not only consider, but overcome. And, until playing for country becomes a real priority for NBA players -- which it clearly was for the first Dream Team in 1992 -- USA Basketball should expect to be challenged more frequently by more and more nations.
That being said, even though the 12 players wearing "USA" in Indianapolis is not America's best possible team, this group should not have lost to Argentina.
The Americans' performance looked like a bad AAU game. How many times did Ben Wallace have to get burned on "screen the screener" action on an out of bounds play under the basket until he adjusted? How many times did the USA have to get burned on backdoor plays before they adjusted to staying between man and basket? These defensive lapses have nothing to do with the selection process, it has to do with preparedness, concentration and effort.
What does it take, having only NBA players in their contract years on Team USA?
When the USA wins gold in Indianapolis, and it will, it will not erase the memory of a sad performance against Argentina. That's too bad, because this team
is better than that.
Jay Bilas is a college basketball analyst for ESPN.