The fudge factor comes to fair play


PORTLAND, Ore. -- If sports is a metaphor for how unpredictable life can be, the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team is a metaphor for how unfair.

This is Secretariat against a field of maidens, Roger Clemens against Little Leaguers, Mike Tyson against a welterweight -- or Evander Holyfield.

Indeed, let's squash the notion that the Dream Team might lose before its first global-warning dunk rains down on some unsuspecting Cuban tomorrow.

In the Tournament of the Americas, the big question isn't "Who qualifies for the Olympics?" but "What qualifies as running up the score?"

For those who must know, four of the 10 teams will reach Barcelona. The Dream Team will sweat it out, then get ready for China and Angola.

As the old cliche goes, anything can happen. Why, the warning signs seem to be increasing each day. Sudden injuries. Zone defenses. Those dreaded international rules.

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.

Patrick Ewing is hurt? Oh heavens, now coach Chuck Daly must play David Robinson at center. Or worse, perhaps even Karl Malone.

Zone defenses? Daly will be in a frenzy trying to find shooters to bust a 3-2. Maybe Chris Mullin. Maybe Larry Bird. All right, maybe even Michael Jordan.

International rules? Alas, no alley-oop lobs permitted inside the lane. But goaltending is allowed when the ball is on the rim. Think about it: Uruguay might never score.

Of course, that's not all.

Apparently, the U.S. coaches are concerned over teams kicking the ball outside beyond the three-point line, which at 20 feet, 6.1 inches is more than three feet closer than that of the NBA.

"You can't drift away and leave a guy open," assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo said this week. "That's clearly a trait of international basketball that we're not as used to."

It's just a thought, P.J., but Jordan and Scottie Pippen probably are quick enough to hound opposing guards not only beyond the three-point line, but back to their native lands.

Never mind that Bird -- playing with a bad back and nearing retirement -- could hit threes from that distance leaning on a cane.

Ah, the shower of negative thinking.

Point: International play is physical.

Counterpoint: Charles Barkley.

Point: Drazen Petrovic.

Counterpoint: Magic Johnson.

Get the picture?

The most hilarious fear of all is that the NBA greats might not mesh well on the court, resulting in a lack of chemistry that somehow leads to their demise.

Of course, anyone who ever played in a pickup game knows better. Whenever the five best players are on the same team, they stay on the court all day.

Face it, Daly is like a kid at a make-your-own-sundae bar -- not that he'd appreciate the analogy, the way he fits so snugly into those fancy designer suits.

Daly doesn't pick flavors, he picks players.

What'll it be today, Chuck?

Rebounders? Ewing (when healthy) at center, Barkley and Malone at forward, Jordan and Pippen at guard -- all 6 feet 6 or taller.

Transition players? Robinson at center, Malone and Pippen at forward, Jordan and Johnson at guard -- all at their best in the open court.

Shooters? Ewing at center, Mullin and Bird at forward, Jordan and Johnson or John Stockton at guard -- all threats from 15 feet and beyond.

Vanilla. Chocolate. Strawberry.

No nuts?

Leave out Barkley.

The whipped cream, of course, is whomever the United States plays. The great irony of NBA players finally competing in the Olympics is that the competition will be weaker than in the past.

Not necessarily in this tournament -- Brazil beat the United States in the 1987 Pan Am Games, Puerto Rico matched that feat in '91 -- but in Barcelona.

The former Soviet Union, winner of the Olympic gold medal in 1988, is now divided into four teams -- Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Meanwhile, war-torn Yugoslavia, the silver medalist in '88, will be split into three -- Yugoslavia, Croatia and Slovenia.

In other words, a team of the best U.S. college players probably could win the gold, as long as their coach wasn't John Thompson.

Now it's too late.

Pour the hot fudge.

Pour it on.

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