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Scream team

Sports | The Dream Team is a marketer's dream, but a coach's nightmare

Issue: "2004 Election: GOP's encore," Aug. 28, 2004

If the USA men's basketball team's loss to Italy in exhibition play was a wake-up call, what was the 19-point loss to Puerto Rico? It's not the possibility that the United States remains asleep that's troubling. It's what they might see if they wake up: The Dream Team is a marketer's dream, but a coach's nightmare.

As much as stars do, role players push NBA teams to championships. Detroit defeated the star-laden Lakers not only with scorers like Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton but also with Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace. Championship teams score but also rebound, defend, and pass. But Team USA's roster is stacked with players looking for picks, not setting them. That may work in an all-star game, but international play is too competitive. The NBA style of basketball does not translate well into Olympic competition where zone defenses prevail-especially when no one bothered to add any zone-killing jump shooters to the roster. The Americans' pure talent no longer trumps the cohesive teams of the world, some of which have been playing together for years.

What's the solution? Some have suggested trotting out the NCAA championship team into competition. USA basketball could use non-NBA players as it did in 1998 during the lockout. That team took bronze at the World Championships. Could that be any worse than losing to Puerto Rico?

True survivors

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To understand how far Iraqi soccer had come before their victories in Athens, consider what looters discovered near the soccer team's headquarters. Several weeks after the invasion, they found an ancient torture device known as an iron maiden.

FIFA suspected Iraq tortured its soccer players. Proof came in a hinged metal box shaped like a sarcophagus with sharp spikes pointing inward. In medieval times, torturers would slowly shut the iron maiden on a living person, causing a slow and painful death. Uday Hussein, who served as the nation's Olympic director, reportedly caned the feet of soccer players who performed poorly.

By the summer of 2004, the Iraqi team qualified for the Olympics on a shoestring. In August it found support, and not just from the Australian Air Force who carted the players out of their country. Expatriates from across Europe traveled to Athens to watch their former countrymen defeat first Portugal, then Costa Rica. At home in Baghdad, residents took up arms but aimed skyward to celebrate. "We used to play with fear in our hearts," midfielder Qusai Munir said, "but now we feel the freedom."

Around the Horn

  • The NCAA reaffirmed its hard-line position against paid collegiate athletes when it rejected former Colorado Buffaloes star Jeremy Bloom's attempt at a football comeback. Mr. Bloom, who is training for the 2006 Winter Olympics as a skier, gave up football when the NCAA said he couldn't accept endorsements that made his ski training possible. The collegiate sports body allows athletes to earn wages from other sports but bans sponsorships. But, as Mr. Bloom and Colorado argued, professional skiers don't earn salaries.
  • Negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement in the NHL hit a snag even as a lockout became a sharper reality. The union rejected six proposals from owners. One of the six ideas: a salary cap that the union says it will never accept and that the owners say is necessary to the survival of the sport.
  • By now, Tiger Woods's spot atop the international golf rankings seems like a cruel joke. It's been months since Tiger has been Tiger and he knows it: "It's getting frustrating that I was not able to put myself up there" with the leaders. Mr. Woods's struggles at the PGA Championship ensured his second straight season without a major championship. Two years ago, Mr. Woods led the rankings and seemed a sure bet to obliterate Jack Nicklaus's records. Now, even though Mr. Woods remains No. 1 in the world golf rankings for another week or so, the American seems to have been replaced as the dominant golfer on tour by the 41-year-old Fijian Vijay Singh.

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