College try not good enough anymore Minus NBA players, U.S. vulnerable


HAVANA -- Magic Johnson wasn't here, but some little guy named Anthony Bennett was. Patrick Ewing was on vacation while Christian Laettner was bounced around the middle like a pinball. Charles Barkley was sharpening his golf game and Mike Peplowski was refining the art of the turnover.

College players from the United States don't win gold medals in basketball anymore. They may not even win the bronze medal today. While the United States is relegated to the Pan American Games consolation final against Cuba, Mexico and Puerto Rico will play for the gold.

But don't worry. Help is just around the corner. NBA players will be doing the dunking and the defending at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. The talent gap between the United States and the rest of the world in international tournaments is about to open again.

"When they start bringing NBA players, everyone will be playing for second place down," Puerto Rico coach Raymond Dalmau said. "I would feel it would be no contest."

But experienced teams now can have their way against college players, trained to play a game that is tightly controlled by coaches who make six-figure salaries and do sneaker deals. Puerto Rico held the United States to four points in the final four minutes to win Thursday night's semifinal, 73-68.

It was only the latest international defeat for the Americans, who have not won a major tournament since the 1986 World Championships. Four years ago at Indianapolis, Oscar Schmidt wept after Argentina upset the United States in the Pan Am final. Now, victories over the United States are routine.

Even the bureaucracy that runs the U.S. basketball program is looking a little tattered. USA Basketball executive director Bill Wall didn't make any friends with his abrasive defense of the American team's shuttle flights to Miami. He also ripped into women's coach Vivian Stringer after her U.S. team settled for a bronze medal.

Yesterday, Dave Gavitt, USA Basketball president, distanced himself from Wall's statement on Stringer, formally apologizing to the Iowa coach. Wall also issued an apology.

The bureaucratic bungling underlines the problems facing the U.S. basketball program. Long gone are the days when the United States would simply round up some college kids, train for a few weeks, and easily win gold medals.

Dalmau said part of the problem may be the college style of play employed by coaches who no longer let players express their natural talents.

"They have to let their ability come out more, rather than hold them back," he said.

Freedom of expression clearly won't be a problem with the pros. But don't expect to see the pros at the 1995 Pan Am Games in Buenos Aires.

"It wouldn't be any contest," U.S. coach Gene Keady said. "You're not going to get NBA players in Pan Am Games. There is too much risk. I hope they do get involved. If they do, we'd win the gold medal. That is what patriotism is all about."

Dalmau said the United States wouldn't even have to send its best players. NBA reserves would do. Even CBA players.

"I really don't think it's fair that the U.S. has to send its amateur players against pros," he said. "If the Americans want to regain the supremacy in basketball, they're going to have to send in the pros. It's a pro tournament. They should bring the best."

But if the other world teams have closed the gap against the college kids, couldn't they close the gap against the pros?

"It's hard for me to say," Dalmau said. "It will be a long time. A very long time."

Laettner said fine. Let the pros play. Let the one-sided wins rolup. Freeze the college kids out of the Olympics. If America wants a gold in basketball, then bring on the NBA.

"Get Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson," he said. "Get the 30-year-old men to beat everyone else. Let them come in and kill everyone. I mean, everyone knows that NBA ball is the best in the world."

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