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World Cup of Basketball Is Still Nothing but a Dream

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Based on current evidence, basketball’s World Championships may realize NBA Commissioner David Stern’s dream of matching soccer’s World Cup but needs time to catch up.

How about 5,000 years?

Dinosaurs will walk the earth again first and not just in “The Flintstones.” Soccer sells out 100,000-seat stadiums with average ticket prices of more than $300 in corners of the globe--like ours--where the game is a rumor. This tournament went a week before selling out a 17,000-seat arena.

When Canada lost to Greece a few days ago in Maple Leaf Gardens, the crowd was 11,083, most of them Greek-Canadians waving blue and white flags and drowning out fans of the home team.

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“I can’t comment on that,” Canadian Coach Ken Shields said. “But you know, it’s pretty hard for Canadian kids playing for their home country to get booed in our building.”

The U.S. entry, known as “Dream Team II” but rarely outside TV ads, is hardly the glamour item its predecessor was. This team’s first three games in nearby Hamilton played to about 70% of capacity. Opponents did not ask for autographs or to pose with the U.S. players for pictures as they did with the real Dream Team.

The original Dream Team was made up of legends. These are just guys, however famous.

“The first thing you did when you started a game was take a picture with Michael Jordan and Magic (Johnson) and (Scottie) Pippen,” said Puerto Rico Coach Carlos Morales, an assistant on the 1992 team in the Olympic qualifying tournament at Portland.

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“That was our standard procedure before every game. And then when we were guarding somebody, the guy who was guarding, let’s say, Magic, was watching the bench so somebody would have his camera and take a picture. It was the biggest moment of our players’ lives just being on the same court with them.”

The players on this team, trying to live up to their elders’ legend, have solved the problem with a party atmosphere, firing themselves up while rubbing opponents’ noses in ignominious defeats. This has not been as popular--opponents are complaining--as it has been effective.

“You’re going back to the traditional basketball when you dunk it and run down the court,” Reggie Miller said. “Well, you’re in the new age now.”

Unfortunately, the U.S. players are only doing what they do every day at home. The NBA game is shot through with styling, woofing, intimidation and attempts to cultivate a personality suitable for getting into TV commercials.

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Coach Don Nelson, a hard driver in the days before “the new age,” has acknowledged that he exerts little influence over his players.

Nelson is here to make friends, for American basketball and perhaps a few for himself, which may be why he has lavished such praise on Shaquille O’Neal, comparing him to Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, even saying at one point, “I know we’ll be friends for the rest of our lives.”

Coincidentally or not, Nelson can get out of his Golden State contract in a season, and O’Neal’s coach in Orlando, Brian Hill, is on shaky ground.

If Canadian crowds eat up the American dunk-o-ramas, back in the States where people have seen Shaq dunk once or twice, this tournament is a yawner.

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Away from its European hotbed or the Olympic spotlight, international basketball is a second-rate carny show. Before the NBA decided that this tournament had marketing possibilities, it meant nothing in the United States, which sent hastily chosen squads. Only two American Hall of Famers ever participated, and one--Bill Walton--was a 17-year-old coming out of high school who played in one game.

In 1959, U.S. officials advertised an open tryout in an Air Force newspaper and fielded a team made up solely of servicemen. In 1978, Athletes in Action represented the United States.

Real interest requires that the Americans send their best players, which has happened, and the rest of the world catch up, which is another thing altogether.

If an American team may well lose a game before anyone imagines--simply because few can imagine it--real competition is years away, or decades.

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Although the level of play overseas has improved dramatically, the pool of players capable of crashing the NBA has mysteriously dried up. In the 1980s, European basketball narrowed a gap thought insurmountable, developing a generation of NBA players: Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic, Sarunas Marciulionis, Dino Radja, Toni Kukoc. Lithuania’s 7-foot-4 Arvidas Sabonis, the greatest of the Europeans and a Portland draft choice, didn’t come because of an Achilles’ tendon injury.

But the 26-year-old Kukoc was the last of the prodigies. NBA scouts are here in force, but beyond Toni, there is only international basketball’s Missing Generation.

“There’s a void there,” says Donn Nelson, Don’s son and the man who, as a Warrior assistant, spent months in Lithuania recruiting Marciulionis.

“They keep talking about cycles whenever I go over there,” the younger Nelson said. “They talk about, ‘These years were great years for basketball, the year Sarunas was born.’

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“I mean Lithuania had Sarunas, Sabonis, Rimas Kurtinaitis (the jump shooter who gunned the U.S. collegians down while playing for the Soviet Union in the 1988 Seoul Olympics), Valdemaras Khomichius. All those were great players from that area.

“They’ve got other things to worry about. Their minds are not on leisure activities right now. You know, they’re experiencing real turmoil. You’re not seeing the great young players because there’s not as much of an emphasis right now.”

Still, in junior competition, matching players of the same age, international teams are routinely beating American squads, hinting at another spurt overseas.

This one will look different, however. Instead of coming to America as established professional stars, more foreign players will attend colleges here, as did Germany’s Detlef Schrempf and Nigeria’s Hakeem Olajuwon.

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“Belorussia has an excellent young team that won the World Championships,” Nelson said. “One of their kids, Alexander Koul, is going to be playing for Mike Jarvis at George Washington. Excellent prospect. They’ve got another small forward who is better than Arturas Karnishiovas, who went to Seton Hall and is an NBA prospect.

“The colleges are getting more and more knowledgeable about the talent that’s over there, especially after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Times are tough over there, and (players) are happy to come over here. And they don’t know the difference between Wright State and UCLA. They just know it’s America.”

The tournament ends this weekend with huge crowds expected at SkyDome. It won’t be like Duke-UNLV in the Final Four or Brazil-Italy in soccer’s World Cup, but as that first one-celled organism that crawled out of the sea millions of years ago could tell you, you’ve got to start somewhere.

World Basketball Notes

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The tournament’s semifinalists are set--the United States, Croatia, Russia and Greece. The pairings will be decided by tonight’s concluding quarterfinal games. Dream Team II, the U.S. entry and prohibitive favorite, plays Russia, and Croatia meets Greece, the only semifinalist to have lost a game. The final four teams are a combined 19-1. The winners and losers criss-cross in Saturday’s semifinals, with those winners playing for the title and the losers for the bronze medal.

Richard Matienzo, a 6-foot-6 center who leads the Cuban team in scoring in the tournament, is seeking refugee status in Canada, the Canadian Press reported Thursday. Matienzo left the team after a practice Thursday morning in Toronto and contacted two Toronto newspapers asking for help in staying in Canada after the tournament ends Sunday.


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