After winning the NCAA Championship in 1992 with Duke, Grant Hill joined a team of college players in La Jolla, Calif., To face the first Dream Team in preparation for the Barcelona Games.
Most wide-eyed college kids saw themselves as sacrificial lambs, thrilled to share a basketball court with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan.
Instead, Hill’s varsity team Allan Houston, Glenn Robinson and others have largely dominated the NBA stars.
The Dream Team, still in its early stages of fusion, ignored loss, beat college kids the next day and intimidated competition at the Olympics.
The United States men’s basketball team has a little more to do this week. The Americans signed their best game in preparation for the Tokyo Games on Tuesday night with a 108-80 victory over Argentina in Las Vegas.
But the United States started with surprising losses to Nigeria on Saturday and Australia on Monday, doubling the number of exhibition losses the team have suffered since 1992, when NBA players were first cleared. times to participate in the Olympics.
Hill, who won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, is expected to succeed Jerry Colangelo as general manager of the men’s national team following the Tokyo Olympics. He watched the exhibition games in Las Vegas and is hopeful the team can react the same way the 1992 team did when the games started to count.
The United States, full of scorers but small, trained just four days before starting the shows. “After a short time together there is a lot that needs to be covered,” said coach Gregg Popovich after the loss to Australia.
Reinforcements are imminent in the form of Jrue Holiday of Milwaukee and Khris Middleton and Devin Booker of Phoenix, still in the NBA Finals, as the Suns go two to one.
Rather, the early exhibits reflect a divide that may have been bridged between the United States and other countries. Just five years ago, the Americans beat Serbia, 96-66, in the gold medal game in Rio de Janeiro.
These Olympics will most likely be more contested. Countries like Nigeria, coached by Mike Brown, former head coach of the NBA and current assistant to the Golden State Warriors, employ several NBA players. Nigeria beat the United States, 90-87.
The mystique of the American team evaporated as the game went global. Members of other national teams are used to playing against NBA competition.
“I don’t disrespect them, they’re a hell of a team,” said Utah Jazz member of Australia, Joe Ingles. “Obviously the guys they have on their roster and Pop standing there are always nice to see, but we came here hoping to win the game and that’s what we did.”
On Tuesday, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal each scored 17 points in the end-to-end victory over Argentina. The result was a turnaround from previous games, when the Americans were late in games but couldn’t close Nigeria or Australia.
“We’re not just going to come here and throw the ball and beat these teams,” Damian Lillard told reporters after the loss in Australia. “We have to play the right way, compete, and we have to come here to win and do everything to give ourselves our best chance of winning. If we don’t, we can be beaten.
It has been clear. Bam Adebayo and Kevin Love are the only traditional indoor players on the list, and the team has been outscored in the first two shows. Popovich said the players are still working on their conditioning.
“And when that happens, you get a little bit mentally touched as well,” he said of the Australian exhibit. “We didn’t support the boards the same way, the defense wasn’t the same, our pace wasn’t the same, so we have guys who have to get their legs and their pace back, but in general, we need more conditioning, which is understandable.
The United States women’s team will face Australia in an exhibition on Friday after facing the WNBA All-Stars on Wednesday. The Americans, however, remain a big favorite to win at the Games, where they will seek their seventh straight gold medal.
Despite the losses, the chances of success for the men’s team remain high, which Nigeria and Australia seemed to achieve: neither of them celebrated their victories particularly effusively.
The United States has consistently won 15 of the 19 Olympic gold medals awarded in men’s basketball, including six of seven during the Dream Team era, and sports betting still has the Americans as the big favorites for gold. in Tokyo. The group stage of the Olympics, which begins on July 25, should be less difficult: the United States must face France (with Rudy Gobert of Jazz), the Czech Republic and Iran. Second place, and maybe even third, should be enough to qualify for the quarter-finals.
But then the Americans will face up to three straight knockout games, and losing one will cost them gold. Their opponents could be Australia or Nigeria again, but they could also face deeper teams like Argentina and Spain.
The team’s performance in Tokyo is likely to influence how Hill approaches the position once his tenure begins.
Shortly after the United States’ disappointing bronze medal at the 2004 Athens Games, Colangelo dropped the selection committee and revamped the team building. He asked players to commit for two or three consecutive summers to establish continuity ahead of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade are committed to restoring the United States on the world stage. This mentality was maintained throughout the next two Olympic cycles as the United States won gold medals in 2012 and 2016.
Most of the momentum is lost in the direction of Tokyo.
The team finished seventh overall and lost to France in the 2019 FIBA World Cup quarter-finals. Durant and Draymond Green are the only vestiges of the 2016 Olympics.
Many NBA stars including Jimmy Butler, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are not participating after the rapid turnaround between NBA seasons during the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.S. roster includes fewer All-NBA first-team members (zero) than Slovenia (Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic).
Hill knows that one exposure trip (or two) can be enough to revive a talented team.
The task he inherits may involve renewing the long-term commitments of the NBA’s brightest players.
But in a global game, the biggest stars of the game are no longer just Americans.
Victor mather contributed reports.