College Dream Team
by Adam Reich
Following the debacle that was the World Basketball Championships, it reopens the thought that USA Basketball should once again be represented by collegiate all-stars. The last time that scenario was still in place was the 1988 Los Angeles Olympics, when John Thompson coached a squad led by David Robinson, Mitch Richmond, Hersey Hawkins and Dan Majerle. That year team USA lost to Russia, thus invoking the idea of using professionals for international play. The following Olympic games saw Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and the rest of the original Dream Team breeze to the Olympic gold medal. The United States has been represented by professionals in international competition ever since. And up until now, there was no reason to change.
Looking back at the original Dream Team we see the ultimate assembly of talent. This team included future hall-of-famers Jordan, Bird, Johnson, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler and Scottie Pippen. Nowadays USA basketball is represented by second-tier NBA talent. I am not going to dissect the squad that took part in the World Championships, however, one can clearly see that the NBA’s elite were not playing with the exception of Paul Pierce. If NBA superstars are going to continue to ignore the chance to represent their country, why not give the opportunity to budding college all-stars who aren’t distracted by selfish owners, endorsement deals and their own egos. If Shaq, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Jason Kidd wanted to play I sure as hell wouldn’t stop them. But that’s a moot point right now.
A college all-star team would be a better representation of USA basketball than second-tier NBA talent. These guys have yet to be corrupted by the professional lifestyle. They are not distracted by contract negotiations and will not fight over shots the way team USA did. By the way, did anyone notice that two-thirds of the World Championship squad are entering their contract year? This fact alone lets you know money played a big role in the assembly of this team. When asked “Whether the money and greed of the NBA has an affect on our competitive nature? Coach George Karl said, “Yeah, you can write that.” And, as far as ball distribution goes, none of these guys want to give up the rock. Most NBA players have developed an ego to go along with their game. And although winning the gold medal is the ultimate goal, it seems that showing one’s individual game often takes precedence over winning.
Give me a team of future NBA superstars without the fat wallets and egos, and a desire to represent their country and I think we would be surprised how well they would do against professionals worldwide. If in the spring, a team of collegiate all-stars were selected to represent team USA, the squad would have likely included the following players: Jay Williams, Mike Dunleavy, Jr., Drew Gooden, Dajuan Wagner, Chris Wilcox, Caron Butler, Jared Jeffries, Juan Dixon, Kareem Rush, Casey Jacobson, Melvin Ely and Ryan Humphrey (Please no arguments or substitutions here).
Let’s discuss how well our college Dream Team would fare in international competition. You have a pair of point guards (Williams and Wagner) who can penetrate and draw the defense and kick the ball out to deadly spot up shooters (Dunleavy, Rush, Dixon and Jacobsen). The team USA that finished sixth at the World Championships struggled offensively because it had only one pure shooter in Reggie Miller. Magic Johnson made the same assertion about International basketball saying, “Every time I take my team [to play internationally], I have six great shooters. That’s why I’ve been successful. You have to have great shooters. [The US team] had a lot of scorers, but we didn’t have great shooters.” In addition, most international teams garner athletic big men who spread the floor and create match-up problems for slower centers. This is why Elton Brand, Antonio Davis and Ben Wallace were non-factors in the World Championships. This is also why college centers such as Chris Marcus and Carlos Boozer would not make my college Dream Team. Quick big guys like Drew Gooden and Jared Jeffries would be a better fit for the international game.
This team USA would thrive in international play for a variety of reasons. The college game is a lot more like the international game. In international competition, foreign squads play a lot of zone defense just as they do in college (Yes, I know zone is now allowed in the NBA, but it still is not as prevalent as it is in college). The most dominant form of offense in college basketball remains the three-point shot. International basketball revolves around the drive and kick offense, just like what Duke does. In addition, the college three-point line is closer in distance to the International line than that of the NBA. The NBA game is all one-on-one offense and banging post play, the kind of play that gets you nowhere in international competition (Once again I am making my point assuming that we are talking about second-tier NBA talent not Shaq, Kobe and Duncan).
When discussing who would be the right coach to lead team USA, we cannot start by criticizing George Karl and saying he is the wrong man for the job (Even though he is the wrong man for the job). Almost any NBA coach would be a wrong fit for team USA simply based on the style of play. An experienced college coach would be a better fit to direct this new team USA. For me it seems almost too obvious that the best candidate would be Mike Kryzyzewski of Duke. He already employs the three-point offense, is accustom to coaching the best talent in college basketball and has the necessary experience. For those of you for forget, Kryzyzewski was an assistant coach under Chuck Daly on the original Dream Team. Coach Kryzyzewski would be able to guide this college Dream Team despite their lack of playing experience.
In the 2000 Summer Olympics, Tommy Lasorda managed a team of collegians and minor leaguers to a gold medal. Lasorda considered the gold medal winning performance the greatest achievement of his career, surpassing his World Series victory in 1988. Talent-wise the USA Olympic baseball team was overmatched, but desire, heart, physical toughness and other variables proved strong enough to equate to victory. What makes us think that the same type of success could not be accomplished by a group of collegiate basketball players under the tutelage of the right coach?
ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas has addressed this topic saying, “Our college kids would be overmatched by the men representing the world’s top teams. He cites “lack of experience, overwhelming pressure and not knowing each other’s games” as the biggest reasons for concern. I agree that experience may be a factor in an international tournament such as the World Championships. However, I would also claim that there is as much pressure in a Final Four as there is in the NBA playoffs. In fact, Reggie Miller is the only member of the squad from the World Championships who has played in the NBA Finals, while six members of our college Dream Team have played in the Final Four. In addition, unless we suited up the Los Angeles Lakers or Maryland Terrapins (Feel free to substitute any elite college or NBA team here) to represent team USA, you are not going to have a group of players accustom to playing with each other. The only way to address that issue is to select the team well in advance so that the players can practice together. Allowing the team USA of the future to have adequate practice time under a dependable coach is the true answer to solving this crisis.
The college basketball season runs annually from mid-November through March, while the NBA season begins around the same time and lasts until June. With the next important international competition being the 2004 Summer Olympics (with qualifying next summer), a decision must be made about who will represent our country and when preparation will begin. A team of collegians can be selected and begin practice in late March while the NBA continues it’s season. Also, the selection committee would not have to concern themselves with NBA contracts or owners. Many NBA players have clauses in their contract that forbid them to play in international competition. Other players, such as Steve Nash of Canada, were convinced not to play in the World Championships due to the additional risk of injury (Often times financial terms are part of the agreement). This is an issue that would not be a factor in choosing a team of amateurs.
In a cyberchat on EPSN, Larry Bird addressed the topic of international competition and said that USA basketball should consider using collegiate players again. “I think they need to take a good look at it and maybe go back to the college players that are hungry and want to play,” Bird stated. “It’s not an easy decision, but someone has to make it. I would love to see them go back to college kids so they can showcase their skills.” So, if you are not willing to hear my arguments for a college Dream Team, perhaps the words of a basketball legend will at least get your attention.