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Original Issue

The Old College Try With NBA stars continually snubbing the U.S. Olympic team, SI's Roy S. Johnson says it's time to give the ball back to the players who care

Tom Jernstedt, the beleaguered president of USA Basketball, feels
like the geek who can't get a date for the prom. In trying to
build a team to compete in this year's Olympics, he's been jilted
more rudely than Carrie. Jernstedt has had to fill vacancies left
by the withdrawals of Kobe Bryant (more pressing matters), Ray
Allen (family issues) and three others, and he completed the
12-man roster by adding five new players, including NBA savior
LeBron James. But the begging-off may have only just begun:
Several other NBA stars, including Nets point guard Jason Kidd
and Lakers forward Karl Malone, are likely to cancel their
reservations for Athens, once again leaving Jernstedt's crack
selection committee scrambling.

I don't know about you, but I'm bored with all this patchwork
team building and with the underachieving teams that result from
a cast of NBA players being assembled helter-skelter and thrown
onto an international stage. The players look bored too. At the
2002 world championships a disorganized bunch of NBA standouts
finished sixth, the lowest by a U.S. team in international
competition since '71. Says Jernstedt, "I never thought I'd see
such a thing in my lifetime."

Of course, the era that preceded this one was, in its way, no
less boring. That would be the era when the U.S. routinely kicked
butt. U.S. men's teams are 109-2 in Olympic, um, competition.
We're 24-0 since the assembling of Dream Team I, in 1992, and
have won the last three gold medals. It's a truth of sports that
one-sided contests are dull, a little fear being essential to the
fun. Even so, there was a genuine thrill in watching the first
Dream Teamers--Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird--step to
the podium for their gold medals. Watching Gary Payton, Tim
Hardaway and Shareef Abdur-Rahim do the same as members of the
2000 Olympic team? Not even close.

Something must be done, and so I offer a modest proposal.

USA Basketball should assemble a team of young, even callow,
stars. Accept no one over the age of, say, 23--a college-aged
team. Rather than a stretch limo full of veterans with failing
bodies and diminished desire, you'll get a busload of college
All-Americas with a few young NBA stars. I'd even add a high
school phenom to that roster. Such a team would come with fresh
legs as well as the spirit and hunger consistent with the Olympic
ideal. Goodbye, past masters; hello, faces of the future.

The youth movement should start now, with USA Basketball adding
NBA rookies Carmelo Anthony of the Nuggets and Dwyane Wade of the
Heat to the Athens roster. Let's also add Emeka Okafor, the
Connecticut center, and Atlanta high school stud Dwight Howard,
who are expected to be the top picks in the NBA draft next month.

What about the gold medal, you may be thinking? It's true that a
Team USA anchored by players like Okafor or St. Joe's little big
man, Jameer Nelson, would struggle against the better
international programs, which have vastly increased their skills
and smarts in the last decade. But what's wrong with that?
America loves an underdog. Rooting for guys who must play
fundamental team basketball to survive would be way more
inspiring than watching another NBA not-quite-All-Star squad.

Understandably, commissioner David Stern, whose league has been
conducting a successful globalization campaign for at least a
decade, favors sending the NBA's top guns. "In every other sport
you send your best athletes," he said when I asked him about
restricting the age of players eligible for international
competition. "Why not basketball?" League sources say, however,
that Stern would likely support a 23-and-under rule if other
nations agreed to do the same. The truth is, the Dream Team ideal
is dead. It's time to abandon the idea of sending our best
players and instead send the best team to watch.


"The guys are too good, too young these days." --AGASSI'S END