by Conrad Brunner
May 30, 2002
The world is shrinking, and with it the talent gap the United States has enjoyed in international basketball.
Though Team USA is still the prohibitive gold medal favorite in the 2002 World Basketball Championship in Indianapolis from Aug. 29 through Sept. 8, the potential for upset is strong. For the first time in international competition, the U.S. team will face a field that outnumbers them in terms of NBA players. Scattered throughout the rest of the 15-team field are 16 NBA players, including 2002 All-Stars Dirk Nowitzki (Germany) and Peja Stojakovic (Yugoslavia).
"People will find out right away," said Reggie Miller, "how far international basketball has come."
Miller is one of two Pacers on the team, joined by forward Jermaine O'Neal. Both have international gold medals on their resumes, Miller in the '96 Olympics and '94 World Championships, O'Neal in the '01 Goodwill Games.
The U.S. roster has three 2002 NBA All-Stars (O'Neal, Baron Davis and Paul Pierce) and three former All-Stars (Miller, Antonio Davis and Michael Finley). O'Neal, Davis, Shawn Marion and Andre Miller were teammates on the gold medal-winning U.S. team in the 2001 Goodwill Games, and that experience was enlightening for young players who had little previous exposure to international competition.
The head coach is George Karl.
"I think the one thing that we have going in representing America is energy and enthusiasm," Karl said. "I think we have an edge on them but we still have to play a first-class rate of basketball to be successful. I don't know if blowouts are an indicating factor of your greatness, I think winning the gold medal is going to be the goal."
After breezing through the first three Goodwill games, winning by an average of 50.7 points over Mexico, Argentina and Cuba, the U.S. needed a last-second defensive stand in regulation to force overtime before eventually beating Brazil 106-98. Sufficiently awakened, Team USA crushed Argentina 91-63 in the final.
O'Neal averaged 13.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.2 blocked shots for the U.S. in that event, which he has credited as a springboard for his All-Star performance during the 2001-02 season.
"Having been part of the Goodwill Games, that was great, but this means a little more this time with everything our country has been through ... it's great to be able to represent my country," O'Neal said. "This will be on our homecourt. It will be a great situation for myself and Reggie to play in front of the home crowd."
Brazil and Argentina both expect to send stronger teams to the World Championship, and are ranked atop their respective brackets. A strong challenge could also be posed by Yugoslavia, which rode Stojakovic to the championship of the highly competitive European qualifying tournament.
"We have to go out and really compete because everyone is getting better," said Marion. "Now that everybody else is improving, we have to go out there and play and not just go out and horse around with these other teams."
The Goodwill Games scare came on the heels of similar close calls in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Lithuania pushed the U.S. team to the wire twice, including an 85-83 decision in the semifinals. In the gold-medal game, France was down just 76-72 with 4:26 left before the U.S. regained control for an 85-75 victory.
"International ball is very competitive," said Andre Miller. "They have a lot of great young players that can shoot the ball and are very athletic. Just me being involved and having the chance to play against those types of players, I can vouch that they are great players over there and it's not like you're going to go (out) there and just walk through guys. You're going to go out there and you're going to get that best shot, because they know that they're playing against some of the greatest players in the world."
The U.S. team is ranked atop Pool C and plays all three of its preliminary games in the RCA Dome: Aug. 29 against Algeria at 8 p.m., Aug. 30 against Germany at 7 p.m. and Aug. 31 against China at 8 p.m.
"There'll be many, many good basketball teams," Karl said. "We have many great international stars as we see every week, and they will play very aggressively and very proudly for their countries come August."