Barring one of the greatest upsets in the history of sports, the men are playing to see who will finish second behind the U.S. But the women's competition, with a seasoned U.S. team flush from success in exhibitions, could be wide open.
WHAT WE KNOW
Welcome back to the quadrennial mismatch, in which American opponents have as much chance as a grape in a winery.
Jimmy Vacarro of the Mirage in Las Vegas says he'll quote odds on individual games--the U.S. will be about a 40-point favorite in its opener against Argentina--but not on the probability of the Americans winning the tournament.
"Off the top of my head, that would be 500-1," says Vacarro. "You could put up a line, like a Tyson fight, 15-1, 20-1, but it wouldn't be worth anybody's while. There's nobody attractive enough to get somebody to bet money against them."
The number of foreign players in the NBA is zooming--there were 17 from Europe or Africa last season; a record five were drafted on this spring's first round--but foreign teams have been depleted by the breakup of the old national empires.
Lithuania, which provided most of the stars on the Soviet team that stunned the U.S. at Seoul in 1988, now competes under its own flag. Yugoslavia still has Vlade Divac and Sasha Danilovic, but Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja are now Croatians.
WHAT WE DON'T KNOW
How the Americans will play.
Will they be as overpowering as the original Dream Team, which romped to an 8-0 record at Barcelona, beating opponents by an average of 44 points?
Or will they be as rowdy as the so-called Dream Team II at the 1994 World Cup in Toronto. The NBA auditioned a young cast but scurried back to the old guys after the kids went into their playground high jinks. Of the 12 members of this team, only Shaquille O'Neal, Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill and Gary Payton are under 30. Only O'Neal and Reggie Miller made it from the '94 team to this one.
"This is a classier bunch of guys," says O'Neal, grinning. "I'm glad I made it."
SOMEONE YOU SHOULD KNOW
Arvydas Sabonis, who has already led one upset of the U.S., is back at center for Lithuania.
In 1988, rusty after sitting for 18 months because of two ruptured Achilles' tendons, the 7-foot-3, 290-pounder with the soft hands and the amazing vision, surprised everyone by joining the Soviets on the eve of the games, then led an 82-76 upset of the Americans, dooming them to be the last team of collegians that would represent the U.S. in Olympic basketball.
Other unknowns on their way up: Greece's 6-1 Efthimis Retzias, just drafted in the first round by Denver, and Croatia's Arijan Komazec, a 6-7 shooting guard.
For classicists, Brazil's light-hearted Oscar Schmidt is back. He's going on 40 and will he happy to take that many shots each game.
SOMETHING YOU SHOULD KNOW
International rules are a hybrid of the NCAA's and NBA's. The three-point arc is 20 feet 6 inches, closer to the NCAA's 19-9 than the NBA's 22 feet. Zone defenses are allowed, as in college but not in the pros.
Some NBA coaches such as Indiana's Larry Brown want to adopt international rules for a more flowing game and one that would oblige defenses to come out from under the basket.
Sources: Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, Times staff, Associated Press
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
At a Glance
Number of athletes: 144 men (12 teams), 144 women (12 teams).
Change since Barcelona: Four teams added to women's tournament.
Dates: July 20 through Aug. 4
Locations: Georgia Dome, Morehouse College.