Tom Jernstedt, the beleaguered president of USA Basketball, feels like the geek who can't get a date for the prom. In trying to build a team to compete in this year's Olympics, he's been jilted more rudely than Carrie. Jernstedt has had to fill vacancies left by the withdrawals of Kobe Bryant (more pressing matters), Ray Allen (family issues) and three others, and he completed the 12-man roster by adding five new players, including NBA savior LeBron James. But the begging-off may have only just begun: Several other NBA stars, including Nets point guard Jason Kidd and Lakers forward Karl Malone, are likely to cancel their reservations for Athens, once again leaving Jernstedt's crack selection committee scrambling.
I don't know about you, but I'm bored with all this patchwork team building and with the underachieving teams that result from a cast of NBA players being assembled helter-skelter and thrown onto an international stage. The players look bored too. At the 2002 world championships a disorganized bunch of NBA standouts finished sixth, the lowest by a U.S. team in international competition since '71. Says Jernstedt, "I never thought I'd see such a thing in my lifetime."
Of course, the era that preceded this one was, in its way, no less boring. That would be the era when the U.S. routinely kicked butt. U.S. men's teams are 109-2 in Olympic, um, competition. We're 24-0 since the assembling of Dream Team I, in 1992, and have won the last three gold medals. It's a truth of sports that one-sided contests are dull, a little fear being essential to the fun. Even so, there was a genuine thrill in watching the first Dream Teamers—Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird—step to the podium for their gold medals. Watching Gary Payton, Tim Hard-away and Shareef Abdur-Rahim do the same as members of the 2000 Olympic team? Not even close.
Something must be done, and so I offer a modest proposal.
USA Basketball should assemble a team of young, even callow, stars. Accept no one over the age of, say, 23—a college-aged team. Rather than a stretch limo full of veterans with failing bodies and diminished desire, you'll get a busload of college All-Americas with a few young NBA stars. I'd even add a high school phenom to that roster. Such a team would come with fresh legs as well as the spirit and hunger consistent with the Olympic ideal. Goodbye, past masters; hello, faces of the future.
The youth movement should start now, with USA Basketball adding NBA rookies Carmelo Anthony of the Nuggets and Dwyane Wade of the Heat to the Athens roster. Let's also add Emeka Okafor, the Connecticut center, and Atlanta high school stud Dwight Howard, who are expected to be the top picks in the NBA draft next month.
What about the gold medal, you may be thinking? It's true that a Team USA anchored by players like Okafor or St. Joe's little big man, Jameer Nelson, would struggle against the better international programs, which have vastly increased their skills and smarts in the last decade. But what's wrong with that? America loves an underdog. Rooting for guys who must play fundamental team basketball to survive would be way more inspiring than watching another NBA not-quite-AU-Star squad.
Understandably, commissioner David Stern, whose league has been conducting a successful globalization campaign for at least a decade, favors sending the NBA's top guns. "In every other sport you send your best athletes," he said when I asked him about restricting the age of players eligible for international competition. "Why not basketball?" League sources say, however, that Stern would likely support a 23-and-under rule if other nations agreed to do the same. The truth is, the Dream Team ideal is dead. It's time to abandon the idea of sending our best players and instead send the best team to watch.