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Dunking Down Under

Keeping up with a (relatively) quiet Dream Team

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Latest: Saturday September 16, 2000 02:55 AM


PENRITH, Australia -- I boarded the train at Olympic Park in Sydney and headed west, past Toongabbie and Doonside, past Girraween and Rooty Hill, past everything, it seemed. After about an hour I reached Penrith, the end of the line, where there was one cab waiting outside the train station. I told the driver I wanted to go to the Penrith Sports Stadium. "I have never heard of such a place," he said.

I assured him that it did exist, but I didn't tell him that at that moment it also contained the greatest collection of basketball talent in the world. He wouldn't have believed me, and I wouldn't have blamed him.

The Dream Team is holding its practices in the isolated little town of Penrith for the duration of the Olympics, which is a little like the Pavarotti rehearsing at a high school auditorium. The Sports Stadium isn't a stadium at all; it's a modest little barracks of a building that would have to be upgraded to be as luxurious as your local YMCA.

When Vince Carter, Gary Payton and friends cleared out on Friday, the Basket Babes and the Helles Belles were ready to take the court in women's rec-league action later that night. There is no state-of-the-art training room here, no gleaming weight machines. There are just a couple of basketball courts, one of which the team barely uses because it has wooden backboards, which most of these NBA stars probably haven't shot at since they were in junior high.

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The choice of practice site is part of the U.S. team's effort not to act the part of pampered rock stars. Instead of staying at one of the posh hotels overlooking Sydney Harbour, they're quartered in comfortable but unpretentious digs in the suburb of Parramatta.

"Some people have the impression that because we're NBA players that we must be these spoiled guys who expect the best of everything all the time," says Dream Team center Alonzo Mourning. "That's not the way it is. You won't hear anybody complain about where we practice or where we sleep. If anything, working out here will make sure we don't get soft and lose our edge. It'll help us stay hungry."

The isolated location will also help the team avoid hordes of media and fans, relatively few of whom are likely to make the daily trek out to Penrith. At practice on Thursday, there was just one fan waiting outside the facility, a 12-year-old Australian boy in a Kevin Garnett replica jersey. He was peering inside one of the windows, trying to catch a glimpse of the players.

"Can you believe they're actually in there, in our little gym?" he said. "Bit like keeping diamonds in a shoebox, isn't it?"

Sports Illustrated senior writer Phil Taylor is in Sydney covering the Games for the magazine and Check back daily to read Taylor's behind-the-scene pieces.

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