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Amateur Hour

As the Goodwill Games proved anew, not every U.S. basketball squad is a dream team

Among the souvenir nesting dolls for sale on St. Petersburg's Nevsky Prospekt is a Dream Team model: Open up Michael and there's Magic, open up Magic and there's Larry, and so on. Russians know the Dream Team well, so few St. Petersburgers would have been surprised if the college basketball players the U.S. sent to the Goodwill Games had won the gold medal. But in light of the Americans' 81-72 semifinal loss to Italy last week, a defeat that exposed the USA Basketball men's program for the shell game that it is, you'll never finda Damon Stoudamire or a Cherokee Parks doll.

Dream Team II will no doubt kick international butt when the World Championships open in Toronto this week, just as NBA superstars booted foreign derriere at the '92 Olympics. The question is this: Will the U.S. ever be able to win another of the international competitions to which it still sends only college players? This is the fifth U.S. team in seven years that was favored to bring home gold but had to settle for some lesser alloy. Nightmare Team V follows Nightmare Team I (loser to Brazil at the '87 Pan Am Games), II (to the Soviet Union at the '88 Olympics), III (to Yugoslavia and the Soviets at the '90 Goodwill Games and to Puerto Rico and the Yugoslavs again at the World Championships) and IV (to Puerto Rico at the '91 Pan Ams). "When you play the U.S., it's always a matter of believing you have a chance," Italy coach Ettore Messina said after his team's win over the US. "As the game went on, we believed we did have a chance."

Tonga must now believe it has a chance. The Americans fell not only to the Italians but also to the Russians in a preliminary-round game. Last week we heard the usual excuses about how the U.S. team had only a few weeks of practice. There were some new alibis too. U.S. officials said they had known whom they wanted on this team—Michigan's Juwan Howard, Cal's Jason Kidd, UConn's Donyell Marshall, Purdue's Glenn Robinson, Arkansas's Corliss Williamson and Wake Forest's Randolph Childress—so they didn't hold trials. But the first four decided to go pro, and the last two got hurt. And several of the other best frontcourt collegians (including Marcus Camby of U Mass, Ed O'Bannon of UCLA, Joe Smith of Maryland and Rasheed Wallace of North Carolina) were attending summer school, some to comply with new NCAA rules on academic progress. Meanwhile, says Goodwill Games coach George Raveling, the two Dream Teams have diluted the thrill of suiting up for any other U.S. team. "These players are caught up in the mystique of the Dream Team," Raveling says. "The highlight for them is when they play an exhibition against Dream Team II on national TV."

In fact, the U.S. lost largely for simple basketball reasons. The Americans played lax interior defense, and too many of them wanted to go barreling to the hoop instead of making the extra pass or cut for the open jumper. They also fell victim to that bugaboo of American innocents abroad, an inability to stroke consistently a three-point shot that is nine critical inches longer than the trey they're used to.

The U.S. could learn much from the Italians. Perhaps because they lacked four of their stars, the Azzurri played with uncommon cohesion. They rebounded with boring efficiency. On offense they showed more patience than Mary Jo Buttafuoco. Most impressive were their four big men: one guy named Flavio, a couple named Paolo, and Gregor Fucka, a 7-footer of Slovenian descent (his surname is pronounced FOOTCH-kuh) whom at least one NBA scout in attendance likes to call "the Big Fucka." All four could box out in the low post, but each could toss up hook shots delicatissimi and go outside and handle the ball too. Even before the loss, Raveling—having seen Italy play twice—warned USA Basketball president C.M. Newton that this brand of Mediterranean frontcourtman could soon eclipse the U.S. and its resolutely back-to-the-basket approach.

As more of the world takes up basketball, international play is becoming increasingly competitive, and the U.S. program is the only one that has not grown more sophisticated. "We're the only country that doesn't have a national team and a national coach," Raveling points out. But that should be a call to arms, not an excuse. Let's hire a full-time coach. He would pick a team that fits a system designed to succeed internationally. In the meantime USA Basketball should prevail on the NCAA to exempt from its rules on amateurism a dozen sophomores- and juniors-to-be each year. Each player would get a stipend, bankrolled by a USA Basketball sponsor, in exchange for doing two-month hitches over two summers playing for his country.

Last Thursday the Americans met Russia again, this time winning 80-71 for the bronze. That game was held up for 45 minutes after Michael Finley of the U.S. shattered a backboard while throwing down a dunk. It was a fitting trophy to take home: a detached rim instead of a gold medal.