This Dream Turns Sour For The U.S.

By Mark Heisler
Updated: February 4, 2007

LOS ANGELES — Once upon a time, there was a U.S. team that was so wonderful, everyone called it the Dream Team.

Its games were romps. Its players were superstars. Opponents asked them to pose with them for pictures after they were routed by them, even Charles Barkley, who elbowed a reedy Angolan and pleaded self-defense, saying, “I thought he had a spear.”

Those were the days — all 15 of them between the opening and closing of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

It seems like a fairy tale now, but that’s how international competition arrived on Commissioner David Stern’s doorstep — an invitation borne by angels.

It was a win-win proposition for the NBA, which got to embody national pride while marketing itself globally. Nor did anyone say anything about any toll after training camp in Monte Carlo.

It was never the same, as succeeding U.S. teams without Michael Jordan’s sizzle and Magic Johnson’s leadership rolled on while interest and admiration ebbed.

Not that things couldn’t get worse.

We did all this to teach the world how to play basketball. Of course, who knew it would pick it up so quickly?

Within 10 years, the U.S. was on a losing streak that is now up to three tournaments (sixth at the 2002 World Games, third at the 2004 Olympics, third at the 2006 World Games.) For better and worse, it’s a competition, not a summer lark.

NBA stars still line up to represent their country — and to be certified as the best of the best — but NBA teams are increasingly restless.

If NBA champions worry about their short off-season after going through June, what did a five-day camp in July and a monthlong tour of Asia in August do to everyone’s summer?

Dallas owner Mark Cuban, the thousand-pound gadfly, just denounced international competition anew, noting the injury Pau Gasol suffered playing for Spain and Memphis owner Michael Heisley’s ongoing sale of the team.

“At David Stern University, we learn that it’s not about individual jobs,” Cuban said. “It’s about a 50-year-plus tradition. We’re setting a history of getting it right and sometimes sacrifices are made.

“Pau gives up his foot, Michael gives up his franchise, [recently fired Coach Mike] Fratello gives up his job, but NBC gets great ratings at the Olympics.

“What more can you ask for?”

Actually, Heisley is just trying to cash out. However, Cuban’s not alone on this one.

Indiana President Donnie Walsh said recently, “There’s no doubt that it takes a toll on the players.”

Clippers Coach Mike Dunleavy said it would be hard to ask his star, Elton Brand, not to go but notes, “There is a case that players who play in the summertime after a long NBA season put themselves at risk as far as getting worn down.”

Brand had the full experience — getting married, playing for the U.S., going to Russia with the Clippers — and is down from 24.7 points a game to 21.

Scoring is dependent on such things as his shot attempts, which are also down four a game. What can’t be explained away is his career-low rebound average (9.1).

“It wasn’t just that,” says Brand of playing with the U.S. team. “Everything, going to Russia. It wasn’t just USA b-ball, but that took a toll. That was tough.”

Leaving out injuries, which may or may not have been a consequence, more players such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kirk Hinrich have acknowledged the toll the summer took.

With James’ numbers down and his Cavaliers off last season’s 50-win pace, LeBron, who’s learning Mandarin for the Beijing Olympics — and who would reportedly get a $500,000 bonus from Nike — recently suggested he’s reconsidering.

“Guys like myself, Carmelo [Anthony] and D-Wade, we’ve played all year since 2003,” James said. “Guys will have to sit down and think about it a little bit.”

Wade was out on his feet before Shaquille O’Neal left and he had to shoulder the entire operation. Wade also will reportedly get a bonus from Converse (which is owned by Nike) amid questions about whether he’ll show up to collect it.

“Especially early in the year, the fatigue took a lot out of me physically,” Wade told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Ira Winderman last week.

“I wasn’t as explosive as I want to be at times early this season, as quick as I want to be at times. But I have to deal with it. That’s a decision that I made.”

USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo, the retiring Phoenix Suns owner, resists any notion that they wore the players out.

Of course, their carefully monitored time on the court may not have been as much of a problem as their marketing-influenced monthlong Asian tour.

No player has actually counted himself out as they await this summer’s schedule — which will be lighter.

“The game plan is, we’re going to camp in late July for a weekend,” Colangelo says. “We’ll probably play a game, send everyone home for a couple of weeks and then we’re going to come back and get ready for the trials.”

They’ll train in Las Vegas, which is also the site of the Tournament of the Americas that was moved when Caracas, Venezuela, its scheduled site, backed out.

This is another positive development for the U.S., to say the least.

“Otherwise,” an NBA team official says, “it might have been you and me.”