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Inside Basketball

World Weary
Three losses in the worlds exposed fundamental flaws in the U.S.

It was hard deciding which was stranger: the Dream Team's three
losses at last week's World Basketball Championship or the
ghostly silence they inspired. A haphazard collection that
included seven NBA All-Stars displayed a shocking lack of
ingenuity to produce the worst finish ever by a U.S. team, sixth
in the 16-team field. You'd think the fine fans of basketball-mad
Indianapolis would have cared enough to boo.

A total of 15,454 watched the home team's defeats--to eventual
champion Yugoslavia, silver medalist Argentina and fifth-place
Spain. The losses provided bitter satisfaction to those who have
complained for more than a decade about the decline in skills at
all levels in the U.S. "Is the money and greed of the NBA having
an effect on our competitive nature?" said U.S. coach George
Karl. "Yeah."

Though Karl maintains that his team would have extended the
U.S.'s 58-game winning streak with NBA players if not for the
late withdrawals of injured guards Jason Kidd and Ray Allen,
their presence might have merely masked the core problems that
plagued the Americans at the worlds. Argentina dealt the U.S. a
humbling lesson in teamwork with its streak-snapping 87-80
victory on Sept. 4 at Conseco Fieldhouse, executing the hard cuts
and sharp passing that used to be the hallmark of the NBA. "Look
at the foreign teams," says USA Basketball executive director Jim
Tooley. "All five players can shoot, all five can pass, all five
are selfless." That, adds Karl, is largely because "the young
players in Europe are getting better coaching and instruction
than ours." Results back him up: The U.S. has won only one of the
last four World Junior Championships.

The collapse at Indianapolis could be a turning point if it gives
USA Basketball the impetus to make substantial changes at its
executive meeting in November. One idea that was going around
Indy is to organize USA Basketball-sponsored skills academies in
each of the 28 NBA cities. Much as students of karate are
rewarded with colored belts, players would wear colored stars on
their high school uniforms reflecting their grasp of the
fundamentals. "Kids used to go to basketball camps," says one USA
Basketball official. "Now they're with AAU teams, and they play
two or three games a day. They don't learn to compete because
there's always another game. And they don't learn the

A more immediate fix would be to hire a full-time national team
coach to promote USA Basketball's grassroots campaign, scout
international opponents, formulate a strategy and recruit the
players who fit into that plan. This American team started
practicing just 10 days before the tournament, which put it a
month behind Argentina. A full-time coach could arrange minicamps
around the NBA schedule; the league could help by hosting a
national-team exhibition during All-Star weekend. The U.S. must
also rethink whether to load its team with stars. Now, says an
NBA executive, "when you're in crisis mode, you see five guys,
each trying to turn it around by himself."

Its failure to win the worlds means the U.S. needs a top three
finish next summer at a North and South American qualifying
tournament for a berth in the 2004 Games. After Indy, not even
that can be taken for granted.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [Leading Off] International Incident Emanuel Ginobili (who will play for the Spurs this season) puts his shoulder into U.S. center Antonio Davis during Argentina's second-round victory at the world championships. The Americans dropped an 87-80 decision, ending a 58-game winning streak in international competition while using NBA players (page 85).

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH When Milan Gurovic and the Yugoslavs prevailed, Karl (left) pondered changes in the U.S.'s approach.