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Dream Team scales wall of China


SYDNEY, Australia - America's Dream Team III met China's Great Wall last night, and it sure was a sight to behold.

There was big, burly Alonzo Mourning, barely coming up to the shoulder of China's 7-foot-5 center Yao Ming.

And there was sleek and agile Kevin Garnett with an up-close view of the chin of 7-1 Wang Zhizhi.

Of course, the United States won the opening-round Olympic game, 119-72.

But the score was beside the point. This was about the lure of the Olympics, the spread of basketball and sizing up the biggest potential market of all, China.

It was also something of a freak show, the world wanting to take a look at China's giants.

A British reporter actually asked Yao to explain how he got so tall.

Yao said: "Every day, you breathe more fresh air."

Wang was asked what it was like to go up against Mourning, who has a reputation for rough-and-tumble play.

"Mourning is a very good center," Wang said. "He played the game very well. He's not as furious as on TV."

Told the quote, Mourning smiled. "No. 15 [Wang], he can play," Mourning said. "I like his game a lot."

China has hundreds of millions of potential fans and, apparently, a fair number of players, including Wang, who was drafted two years ago in the second round by the Dallas Mavericks.

So far, China hasn't allowed any of its talented stars to slip overseas. But there is speculation that if the country wins the bid for the 2008 Olympics, authorities will let top players hone their skills at American colleges and in the NBA. That should make the Big East happy.

Yao said he didn't think players were being held back.

"Players allowed in the U.S. will come back home and give more contributions," he said.

What China's basketball program possesses is size and youth. For five minutes, the Chinese made it a game against the NBA. There was Yao slapping away Gary Payton's layup attempt. And a pesky guard, Sun Jun, hit a three-pointer to give China a 16-12 lead with 15:06 left in the opening half.

But after Wang picked up his fourth foul 34 seconds later, the U.S. team was off to the races. Apparently, China's coaches haven't gotten the hang of keeping track of the number of fouls.

"The referee was sensitive to the block," Wang said of the quick fouls. "Maybe the referee said, 'Oh, he's from the NBA. He can't be blocked.' "

Dream Team III lacks the panache of its predecessors. But it will likely turn the men's basketball tournament into an exhibition sport, something the world is going to have to grow accustomed to.

There may be other rising basketball powers, but no one has come close to catching the Americans.

Can the United States ever be beaten?

"Probably won't be in my lifetime," Mourning said.

Though others have questioned Dream Team III's commitment to the Olympics, Mourning said this is the best defensive team in Olympic history. And that includes the first Dream Team, which featured Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

"We were all in awe," he said of the first Dream Team. "We got spoiled. Eleven of those guys are Hall of Famers. It's hard to measure up to Michael, Magic and Bird."

Mourning maintains this squad wants to win and wants to represent America. He's even willing to court a severe case of jet lag to play here. He plans to fly to the United States Sept. 22 so he can help his wife, Tracy, with the induced birth of their daughter the next day. He'll then fly back to Sydney.

For all their sacrifice of vacation and family time, the players are also getting a little cranky about the negative press they have received.

"People call us boring, not very talented," he said. "We're kind of insulted. We got off the plane in Melbourne and there was a newspaper writing, 'Jason Kidd who? Steve Smith who?' That is totally disrespectful of us - the best players in the world. We [Americans] developed basketball and turned it into a global game. I'd like to think we're masters of this sport."

For now.

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