It was hard deciding which was stranger: the Dream Team's three losses at last week's World Basketball Championship or the ghostly silence they inspired. A haphazard collection that included seven NBA All-Stars displayed a shocking lack of ingenuity to produce the worst finish ever by a U.S. team, sixth in the 16-team field. You'd think the fine fans of basketball-mad Indianapolis would have cared enough to boo.
A total of 15,454 watched the home team's defeats—to eventual champion Yugoslavia, silver medalist Argentina and fifth-place Spain. The losses provided bitter satisfaction to those who have complained for more than a decade about the decline in skills at all levels in the U.S. "Is the money and greed of the NBA having an effect on our competitive nature?" said U.S. coach George Karl. "Yeah."
Though Karl maintains that his team would have extended the U.S.'s 58-game winning streak with NBA players if not for the late withdrawals of injured guards Jason Kidd and Ray Allen, their presence might have merely masked the core problems that plagued the Americans at the worlds. Argentina dealt the U.S. a humbling lesson in teamwork with its streak-snapping 87-80 victory on Sept. 4 at Conseco Fieldhouse, executing the hard cuts and sharp passing that used to be the hallmark of the NBA. "Look at the foreign teams," says USA Basketball executive director Jim Tooley. "All five players can shoot, all five can pass, all five are selfless." That, adds Karl, is largely because "the young players in Europe are getting better coaching and instruction than ours." Results back him up: The U.S. has won only one of the last four World Junior Championships.
The collapse at Indianapolis could be a turning point if it gives USA Basketball the impetus to make substantial changes at its executive meeting in November. One idea that was going around Indy is to organize USA Basketball-sponsored skills academies in each of the 28 NBA cities. Much as students of karate are rewarded with colored belts, players would wear colored stars on their high school uniforms reflecting their grasp of the fundamentals. "Kids used to go to basketball camps," says one USA Basketball official. "Now they're with AAU teams, and they play two or three games a day. They don't learn to compete because there's always another game. And they don't learn the fundamentals."
A more immediate fix would be to hire a full-time national team coach to promote USA Basketball's grassroots campaign, scout international opponents, formulate a strategy and recruit the players who fit into that plan. This American team started practicing just 10 days before the tournament, which put it a month behind Argentina. A full-time coach could arrange minicamps around the NBA schedule; the league could help by hosting a national-team exhibition during All-Star weekend. The U.S. must also rethink whether to load its team with stars. Now, says an NBA executive, "when you're in crisis mode, you see five guys, each trying to turn it around by himself."
Its failure to win the worlds means the U.S. needs a top three finish next summer at a North and South American qualifying tournament for a berth in the 2004 Games. After Indy, not even that can be taken for granted.