Tuesday, February 16, 2010

National Interest

USA Basketball guru Jerry Colangelo recently named 27 players that will make up the pool for the men’s national team from 2010-’12.

It’s up to the brain trust of Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski to devise how the players compete for spots on the team that will eventually land in London for the 2012 Olympics. The whittling process will likely be done behind closed doors, but it would be ideal for fans if they got to see as much of the action as they did in 1984.

A litany of talented players descended upon Bloomington, Ind., to take part in the 1984 Olympic Trials. Players ran the gamut from established college stars (Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing) to relatively unknown players including UW-Stevens Point’s Terry Porter. The list even included two high-school stars, Danny Manning and Delray Brooks. U.S. coach Bobby Knight ran the show, and the exacting “General” would trim the fat as he saw fit.

The highlight of the Olympic Trials was two nationally televised scrimmages in front of 18,000 fans at the sold-out Assembly Hall. Billy Packer and Pete Newell, coach of the fabled 1960 U.S. team, would call the action. Fans got the chance to scout the talent, just like the U.S. Selection Committee.

Well-known stars such as Jordan and Chris Mullin were virtual locks to make the team, but the players to watch were the ones on the bubble. Arkansas guard Alvin Robertson made his case with some suffocating defense. A young guard from Gonzaga named John Stockton was intriguing with his bulldog mentality and pass-first mien. But the toughest call to make was Auburn’s enigmatic Charles Barkley. The freshly named “Round Mound of Rebound” was clearly talented, but also was visibly out of shape in the scrimmage. Packer made the point of saying that Barkley excelled during the private practices, but Knight was unlikely to be happy with the forward’s robust (in all forms of the word) personality.

In the end, 12 players were chosen for the team that would represent America in Los Angeles that summer. A team of those who got cut might have still won gold at the Games. Barkley, Stockton, Porter, Joe Dumars, A.C. Green, Mark Price, Pearl Washington and Ed Pinckney were among the bold-faced names left off the final roster.

The lucky ones were subject to Knight’s rigorous practices and a barnstorming tour against NBA players. The Olympians played eight exhibitions across the U.S., with the best game coming at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix against a grab bag of NBA talent coached by the Lakers’ Pat Riley. The pro team’s starting lineup was Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Walter Davis, Alex English and Larry Nance. Knight settled on these starters: Jordan, Ewing, Robertson, Sam Perkins and Vern Fleming.

The pros looked a little out of shape and very sloppy. That was unsurprising for an unfamiliar group of stars in the heart of the off-season. Still, it was better competition than the Americans would see in the actual Games. Riley and the pros would help out the U.S. by playing international rules (different lanes, 30-second shot clock, 3-for-2 free throws) and switching up defenses.

The game definitely got competitive and was tight until a late run by the U.S. team. Jordan was clearly the most physically talented player on the court, and he finished with a game-high 27 points in the Americans’ 84-72 victory.

As expected, the U.S. team steamrolled to gold in Los Angeles. The Americans won by an average of 32.1 points, and shot a blistering 63.9% in a 96-65 victory over Spain in the gold-medal game. They were the last U.S. amateur team to claim gold. Debating the best non-professional U.S. team mostly oscillates between Knight’s squad in 1984 and Newell’s 1960 team (Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Jerry Lucas) that won gold in Rome.

The fondness for that 1984 team likely stems from its many public showings. It would be high heaven to watch the current NBAers scrimmage against each other, especially in the hoops-deprived doldrums of the off-season.

Could you imagine watching in 1992, when a group of star collegians took it to the Dream Team at the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla, Calif.? That would have been something to see, with Bobby Hurley shaking Stockton and Allan Houston drilling threes on Jordan.

Since it is the national team, Colangelo and Co. could at least democratize the process by letting the unwashed masses watch some of the action.

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