ATLANTA -- There never was any reasonable doubt. The USA basketball team won the gold medal at the 1996 Olympiad at the same time it won the 1992 Olympic title, on the day the International Olympic Committee endorsed the notion of allowing professional players to participate in the Olympic basketball competition.
No one figured on any suspense. The only question was whether the NBA all-stars would live up to the international hype and show the world just how well they can play.
Maybe not, but they still crushed Yugoslavia, 95-69, last night with a late onslaught that made the game look far more lopsided than it was.
The Yugoslavian team showed surprising resilience and even a little spunk on the way to the silver medal. It wasn't content to be the Olympic equivalent of the Washington Generals in last night's final Dream Team showcase, and even got into a brief shoving match with the U.S. team during a physical second half.
It would not change the outcome, but it would make one of the most anticipated events of the Atlanta Games reasonably competitive . . . at least until the USA's superior talent and depth turned it into a rout in the final minutes.
The sellout crowd at the Georgia Dome clearly enjoyed watching the Americans mop up on the only other undefeated team in the competition to become the first back-to-back Olympic men's basketball champion since the U.S. collegiate team won in 1964 and '68.
"This is a dream come true," said guard Anfernee Hardaway, who scored 17 points. "This is what we have all been waiting for. All the guys stepped up and did the job. We really hushed a lot of critics up and won the gold medal."
The U.S. team certainly won the gold, but it remains to be seen whether last night's performance will be enough to silence critics of the Dream Team concept. The United States figures to dominate the Olympic competition indefinitely, if the logistical hardships that come with the Olympic experience do not discourage the top NBA players from taking part.
The players have become so popular they cannot comfortably leave their Olympic headquarters hotel, and this year's experience was made more uncomfortable by the bomb that exploded not far from where the U.S. team was housed. Still, several players said they would come back if they were invited to the Sydney Games in 2000.
Why not, with the gold medal all but guaranteed?
Everybody knew the U.S. team was going to win, even Yugoslavian NBA forward Vlade Divac, who said a few days ago he was "99.9 percent" sure the USA would win the gold medal -- even though the Yugoslavian team came into the game with 16 consecutive victories in international competition.
"Even if it was expected, it's a different feeling when you actually win it," said Hakeem Olajuwon. "It's a wonderful feeling. This is the highlight of my professional career. I've won an NBA title, so this makes it complete."
The Yugoslavian team made the Americans work for it in the first half, riding a 16-point performance from forward Zarko Paspalj to a seven-point lead. The Dream Team got into early foul trouble and allowed the Yugoslavians to control the game at the free-throw line, until Hardaway sparked a late surge for a five-point halftime lead.
No one who had seen the U.S. team play in the first seven games could have been surprised that the game was still in doubt at the break. The U.S. team seldom asserted itself in the first half, but never before had the NBA stars trailed for so much of a game. They did not take their first lead until Shaquille O'Neal scored to make it 36-35 with 3: 13 to go in the half.
The Dream Team took over after that, but there were some anxious moments. Charles Barkley, considered the spiritual leader of the U.S. team, fouled out with 12 minutes left when he drew a technical. He came into the game as the USA's top scorer and rebounder, but David Robinson and Hardaway filled it up in the final.
"Any one of these guys could have stepped up," said Robinson, who finished with a team-high 28 points. "That's why they call this a dream team. I'm just glad it was my opportunity tonight."
The one-sidedness of it all figures to remain a sore subject. The NBA stars are so superior to the various national teams -- their smallest margin of victory was 22 points -- that there is scattered sentiment to go back to an all-amateur competition, though most concede that the likelihood of that is slim.
Competitive or not, interest in the Olympic basketball competition has increased worldwide because of the presence of the American stars, and even overmatched opponents are happy for the opportunity to play against them.
There is more likelihood that other team sports will follow suit. In the aftermath of the bronze-medal baseball game on Friday, U.S. pTC coach Skip Bertman said it was inevitable that professional players will be included in future Olympic baseball competition.
The bigger the stars, the better the television ratings, and that is what is driving the Olympic movement.
In terms of pure basketball, last night's bronze-medal game between Australia and Lithuania was more engaging. The surprising Australian team led by as many as eight points in the first half and closed a late deficit against the stronger Lithuanians, nearly pulling off the upset.
Lithuania didn't put the game away until Portland Trail Blazers center Arvydas Sabonis converted a three-point play with 23 seconds left to assure the 80-74 victory.
Pub Date: 8/04/96