Hardly Dream-like rout still makes for picture perfect day for Cubans


PORTLAND, Ore. -- The picture, the Cubans wanted the picture. To remember their meeting with the great U.S. Olympians. To prove they competed on the same court.

The Cubans were about to get pounded 136-57, but they were thoroughly preoccupied, signaling wildly for the members of their traveling party with cameras to approach center court.

Reluctantly, the American players posed with them. The picture will show that Magic Johnson (who else?) was the only one smiling. The others appeared bothered and confused.

Meanwhile, one of the Cubans crouched down right next to Michael Jordan, grinning like a fool, pointing at the NBA legend with his thumb.

"Look, ma," he might have been saying in that one fleeting, chaotic, tender moment. "I, too, can be like Mike."

Which was the whole point.

The Cubans didn't relish becoming the Dream Team's first victim in the Tournament of the Americas yesterday, but they recognized the moment as a historic occasion for the game they love.

The United States -- a Slaughterhouse Five and then some -- might win every game of this Olympic qualifying tournament by ridiculous margins. Yet, for opponents such as Cuba, all is not lost.

The rest of the world caught up to the U.S. collegians, and now with everyone competing in the same arena, it can begin the more daunting task of pulling even with the pros.

Impossible, you say? Only for the moment. Parity is the inevitable fallout of the NBA going global. It might take 15 years. It might take 50. But it will happen, guaranteed.

Basketball is rapidly approaching soccer as the world's most popular sport, and the inclusion of NBA stars in international competition will only hasten that ascent.

Oh, there are dissenters -- Puerto Rican coach Raymond Dalmau, for one, claims the United States has gone too far, intending to "humiliate" and "pulverize" the opposition.

Dalmau, however, is in the minority. Felix Morales, the Cuban center, said it was "an honor" to play against the Dream Team. As for the outcome, he added, "It was a logical result."

The Cubans, you see, follow the NBA on television, even under Fidel Castro's Communist regime. Their ultimate goal, in a basketball if not financial sense, is to narrow the gap.

Put simply:

To be like Mike.

"We didn't feel devastated or massacred," Cuban guard Angel Caballero explained. "It was a great experience to play them. It helps elevate us to the next level."

Expect to hear more of the same from the other U.S. opponents this week. The Dream Team doesn't simply reflect U.S. dominance in basketball. It reflects all basketball can be.

"It's the strongest team of all time, almost a perfect machine," Cuban coach Miguels Calderon Gomez said. "There's nothing perfect in this world. But that's as perfect as you get."

Of course, matching that perfection won't be easy, especially with former basketball powers like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia now existing in other, diluted forms.

But the more places the NBA markets, the more popular the sport will become. The league already plays games in Japan. Its players are emulated throughout the world.

And the monster just keeps growing.

Just yesterday, USA Basketball and FIBA announced a preliminary agreement for a team of elite U.S. collegians to compete against a team of 22-and-under Europeans every two years.

Meanwhile, the game's international governing body (FIBA) has grown from eight to 181 members since its inception in 1932 -- with the number likely to increase to more than 200 after all the new European nations are incorporated.

So, yesterday was only the start. The Dream Team won by nearly 80 points, prompting Calderon to observe, "As we say in Cuba, you can't cover the sun with your finger."

The coach also joked, "People say in the NBA there's no defense," but the Dream Team shattered that myth, along with a few others.

Those who think that nothing in an NBA game is decided until the last minute better reconsider. After 10 minutes yesterday, it was 32-11. After 20, 67-27. After 30, 102-39.

Indeed, the Cubans were wise to stage their impromptu photo session before the game, when they still could smile.

"That was funny. That was weird," Charles Barkley observed. "We don't want to make that a habit. This is a business."

But David Robinson understood.

"For them, it's got to be somewhat of a thrill to play against us," Robinson said. "I know I'm thrilled to play with these guys.

"It's something for them to enjoy. It's no embarrassment. A few teams might get beat by as many. That's no statement on what kind of team they are. It's a statement on having to play us."

A powerful statement, in a game forever changed.

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