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Friday, June 4, 2004
Athens-obia: Fear of a Dream Team defeat

By Frank Hughes
Special to ESPN.com

There is a section of the movie "Mean Girls" in which several of the characters contrive to deviously topple the most popular girl in a high school.

In one scene, they rig the girl's bra so that purple ink leaks onto her shirt and she is theoretically supposed to walk around the school in utter embarrassment. Instead of the intended consequences, however, different shades of ink on the chests of girls throughout the school becomes a fad, a further clarification of the girl's unbreakable popularity.

Is it just me, or does it seem as if a lot of NBA players are walking around with ink stains on their chests right now?

Apparently, it's become the "in" thing to bail out of the Olympics, citing any and all excuses for not participating in what admittedly is being predicted as a William Hung a cappella; if Sydney was Felix Unger, than Athens is Oscar Madison.

Now, I am not making any accusations here, and nothing I bring up is substantiated in any way. But sometimes, when things like this happen, it makes me wonder. So this is just me wondering.

What I wonder is this: Are all these players pulling out of the Olympics because now that the best players -- Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd -- are no longer going, guys don't want to be affiliated with a team that could actually lose in the Olympics for the first time since the Dream Team was initially assembled in 1992?

A few years ago, such a question would have been sacrilege. The United States? The Dream Team? Lose in an Olympics? Hooey. Utter tomfoolery.

But that notion was quickly dispelled in the World Championships in Indianapolis two years ago, when a George Karl-coached, Paul Pierce-led team lost first to Argentina, then to Yugoslavia, then to Spain and finished 6-3 and in sixth place.

Fingers were pointed -- mostly at Karl -- accusations were made, feelings were hurt and the entire episode is something that would better be erased from the memories of all involved.

The byproduct of finishing so poorly in the World Championships was that an Olympic qualifying team then needed to be assembled, and while it did rather well in Puerto Rico, many of its players suffered.

Of the 12 players on the 2003 qualifying roster, only Mike Bibby and Richard Jefferson did not miss any of the 2003-04 NBA regular season with injuries. Nick Collison lost his entire season. Ray Allen missed a quarter of the season, as did Allen Iverson. Everybody else played with nagging injuries that sometimes hampered them and their respective teams.

So there is certainly some legitimacy to the idea that many of the players invited to play on the Olympic team are opting out because of health concerns that could negatively impact their long-term careers.

At the same time, I pick up the paper and read a story about a gymnast named Blaine Wilson, who has a torn biceps muscle, which usually takes six months to heal. Blaine will be competing in Athens.

"Pain doesn't hurt as bad as not getting done what you need to get done," Wilson said. "You turn the pain part of your brain off. But you'll always remember what you didn't do."

Paul Pierce and Ben Wallace
It's not fun representing your country in defeat. Just ask Paul Pierce and Ben Wallace.
Unless, apparently, you play in the NBA.

Not only that, but some of the players are not even citing injuries as excuses. Allen's fiancée is pregnant and he does not want to miss the birth of his child. Tracy McGrady uttered something about getting married, which to me seems a little fishy, as if McGrady, who makes $20 gazillion dollars a year, could only reserve a wedding hall during the Olympics. Curiously, I have not heard concerns about security expressed.

(In unrelated news, the judge in the Kobe Bryant trial on Wednesday ruled that announcers of NBA Finals games could not use the term "offense" when referring to the Detroit Pistons' method of scoring. The judge ruled that the term implies that Detroit can put the ball in the basket. However, the judge ruled that if the Los Angeles Lakers actually defeat the Pistons, the Pistons can then be referred to as "victims.")

My suspicion is that early on some of the players pulled out because of legitimate concerns about injuries. Then, as players started to look at the replacements and the actual roster, it dawned on them that they could be part of something that might not be so good.

After all, the makeup of the roster now seems like a hodge-podge of talent, skills and positions, mixed in with, of course, marketing. LeBron James and Allen Iverson are alongside, at least for now, Bibby, Stephon Marbury, Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Jefferson and the rock, Tim Duncan.

In other years, this collection of talent would be enough to overwhelm an Olympic Games, and against most countries it still is. But as the World Championships taught us, some parts of the world have caught up to us in hoops. Some of the players from Serbia-Montenegro have been playing together for years, and given the mass exodus of U.S. players, some might consider that country the favorite for the gold. Does anybody really want to be associated with the stigma of being a part of the first Bad Dream Team?

The irony of all this is that this is what coach Larry Brown has always wanted. Those who have worked with him say that he is renowned for coming into his office after losses and saying he hates all his players and wants to trade them for somebody else.

Now, he has that happening. Only, they have traded themselves before he got the chance to hate them on his own. Isn't it purely poetic that one of the only steadies in this entire movement of players has been Allen Iverson, an original invitee who has said all along he will participate, despite an injury-plagued regular season? Nothing like international competition to bring together dueling personalities.

The only thing I find more disturbing is that I actually saw the movie "Mean Girls."

Frank Hughes, who covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.