John Smallwood: World has caught up to USA in basketball

WASHINGTON — OK, so the back-and-forth among Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley about whether the 2012 USA men's Olympic team could have defeated the original, one-and-only "Dream Team" was fun.

For what it's worth, I think the 1992 team was better, but not by as big a margin as Jordan, Barkley and now even President Obama have suggested.

In a seven-game-series, I think the Dream Team wins, 4-3.

But one factor that no one can dispute is that the competition the United States will face starting in London is far superior to anything the 1992 squad faced in Barcelona. The quality of play in other countries has increased exponentially since FIBA opened the Olympics to professional players in 1989 and NBA players first suited up in Barcelona.

With the growth of basketball worldwide and the proliferation of international players on NBA rosters, no USA team will ever again win an Olympic tournament by an average of 44 points, as the Dream Team did.

At this point, because of the quality of competition, winning an Olympic gold medal or FIBA world championship is good enough for the United States.

"We have to thank the Dream Team for making the game more global and allowing us to become international superstars," said Sixers swingman Andre Iguodala, who had five points in the USA's 80-69 victory over Brazil in an exhibition game Monday night at the Verizon Center. "We can also thank them because there are a lot of great basketball players in the world now and that just shows how much the game has grown since the Dream Team."

A lot of people believe that the Dream Team came about because the United States wanted to reassert its dominance after the Soviet Union beat up on our college kids at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

That really wasn't the case. Despite winning just a bronze medal, USA Basketball joined the Soviet Union in voting against the FIBA proposal to allow professionals at the Olympics.

The NBA was not exactly overwhelmed when USA Basketball asked it to fill the roster for the Barcelona Games with a team that included Jordan, Barkley, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and other superstar players. In perhaps the last marketing miscalculation the NBA has made, it didn't realize the worldwide cultural impact sending its most recognizable players would have. FIBA's motive had nothing to do with American pride or NBA global marketing assets.

I don't think anyone believed basketball would reach the worldwide status of soccer, but being No. 2 in the world wouldn't be a shabby proposition.

For that to happen, FIBA needed the biggest and most recognizable faces in the game on the biggest international sports stage. FIBA wanted the Dream Team to inspire a German youngster like Dirk Nowitzki to become so enamored with seeing a player like Scottie Pippen in the Olympics that he would put down his soccer ball and pick up a basketball. Things like that happened all over the world, and it wasn't long before the international seeds that the Dream Team had planted begin flourishing and migrating to the NBA.

In 1992, the Dream Teamers faced only a handful of players who would ever play in the NBA. The best were Toni Kukoc and Drazen Petrovic, of Croatia, Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunus Marciulionus, of Lithuania, and Detlef Schrempf, of Germany.

In pool play alone, the 2012 Olympic team will face NBA champion and All-Star Manu Ginobili, Milwaukee Bucks forward Carlos Delfino and veteran NBA forward Luis Scola of Argentina; NBA champion and All-Star Tony Parker, plus NBA players Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw, Kevin Seraphin and Ronny Turiaff, of France; and 2011 lottery pick Jonas Valanciunas and NBA veteran Linus Kleiza, of Lithuania.

Spain, another heavy favorite, features the Lakers' Pau Gasol, Grizzlies' Marc Gasol, Raptors' Jose Calderon and Thunder's Serge Ibaka.

Even the host nation of Great Britain, which last played in the Olympics in 1948, features NBA All-Star Luol Deng, of the Chicago Bulls.

Monday night, Brazil, which is also going to London, featured solid NBA players Anderson Varejo, of Cleveland; Nene, of Washington; Tiago Splitter, of San Antonio; and Leandro Barbosa, of Indiana.

"I think even Charles Barkley said that [the Dream Team] didn't face any team of any measure that stacked up to them," Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love said. "We definitely have a lot of stiff competition from teams with guys who have come from overseas and made big impacts in the NBA."

The world is no longer intimidated. No player will ask LeBron James for his autograph during an Olympic game.

The USA's invincibility crumbled on Sept. 4, 2002, at the FIBA World Championships in Indianapolis when Argentina became the first nation to beat a USA team composed solely of NBA players. It took the world only one decade to catch up to the best the United States had to offer. It's no longer shocking for the USA to lose a big international tournament.

"It's an eye-opening experience," said Love, who will be in his first Olympics. "It's also an eye-opener to find out how many guys who are not in the NBA, but are still very good players. Basketball is now a game where, on any given day, any team can win or lose."

That's the legacy of the Dream Team. It's a legacy Team USA will have to contend with in London. n


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