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Croatia gets ready for final nightmare Dream Team goes for gold medal today


BARCELONA, Spain -- With twilight falling on its brief existence, the Dream Team packs today for a fast getaway home, or in case of the unthinkable, to any tropical isle that will grant it asylum.

The Americans have only to dispatch Croatia again -- they won a previous meeting by 33 points -- to claim the Olympic gold medal in men's basketball.

Like the rest of their opponents, the Croatians aren't worried.

Someone asked Toni Kukoc what had to happen for Croatia to win.

"Joke," Kukoc said, grinning.

The U.S. team's legacy remains to be seen but, controversy notwithstanding, seems overwhelmingly positive.

More than just a victory for the United States, the NBA's Olympic debut is viewed in international basketball as a triumph for the game itself, which is now widely seen as knock, knock, knocking on soccer'sdoor.

Even old foes in the international community now endorse NBA participation, starting with its most stubborn adversary:

The United States.

Four years ago, Boris Stankovic, the Serbian secretary-general of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), ramrodded through a 57-13 vote to invite NBA players.

The vote was secret, but the United States and the Soviet Union announced that they had voted no, presumably along with the Eastern bloc.

"Upon instruction from the board of directors, I voted no," said Dave Gavitt, president of the U.S. federation, USA Basketball, known at the time as ABA USA.

"ABA USA was then made up of the NCAA, the junior colleges, the AAU, the NAIA. They basically weren't in favor of it. It put them in affiliation with professionals. None of them ever had been or wanted to be."

Gavitt, the man of many titles, had been an Olympic coach -- in 1980, of the team grounded by the U.S. boycott -- was then Big East commissioner and is now vice president of the Boston Celtics.

How did he feel about letting the in pros in 1988?

"My personal feeling was probably like a lot of people," Gavitt said. "The Olympics had been traditionally for college players over the years."

How does he feel now?

"I think now we'll look back on Dr. Stankovic's vision to open the Olympic Games as being the historical springboard to making the game grow worldwide. It was his vision that the game could not become the No. 1 game in the world without the best players in it."

The switch to NBA players was expected to be popular, but the actual splash surprised everyone.

"It's bigger than I thought," Gavitt said, "and I've been sitting on this for 3 1/2 -4 years.

"I thought we'd get a good response from the players but I didn't think we'd get everybody we wanted. The fact we got everybody we wanted startled me."

Despite complaints by LeRoy Walker, the U.S. Olympic Committee's president-designate, who doesn't appear to be keen on NBA participation, Stankovic figures to see the NBA's finest return in four years.

Gavitt said selection policy is the constitutional responsibility of the national federation, USA Basketball.

Until the earth moves again, it's a pro show.

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