The (Not So) Little Team That Could
Colorado Springs, Colo. - March 9, 2010
Following a dominating showing by the 1992 Dream Team, the 1994 USA World Championship and 1996 Olympic teams continued to collect gold on the world stage with teams featuring NBA players. With stars like Vin Baker, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Tim Hardaway, Grant Hill and Gary Payton named to the squad, the 1998 USA World Championship Team looked to be on the same gold medal track as its predecessors. However, the locomotive that the world thought would steam into the gold medal station in Athens that summer, got derailed when the labor negotiations between the NBA and the NBA Players Association took a turn for the worse.
On June 12, less than one month before the team was to begin training, USA Basketball was informed by the NBA Players Association that the 12 athletes would not reaffirm their commitment to play at the World Championship in Greece that summer. On the positive side, Houston Rockets head coach Rudy Tomjanovich's commitment to USA Basketball never wavered. He was in, ready to roll up his sleeves and coach whatever team was selected.
Over the next two weeks USA Basketball contacted over 100 players to come to a team trials, set to tip-off on July 8 in Chicago. Many former NBA players who were competing in Europe and some top CBA players turned down the invitation so as not to look like they were crossing the labor negotiation picket line.
On July 8, 29 players began training in hopes of securing a roster spot. Among the 29 were three college players, a pair of former collegians who went undrafted in '98, nine who competed in Europe the previous season, 12 from the CBA and three who played in both the CBA and Europe that year .
To the average fan and sportswriter alike, this had all the markings of a disaster. In fact, all but two news outlets cancelled plans to send someone to Europe to cover the team.
-Originally, scores of media members and sponsors and fans were scheduled to pack into the small principality (of Monaco) while the NBAers were there," wrote Houston's Eddie Sefko, who stayed on track to cover the team only because Rudy T was the head coach. -But now, with only CBA, college and European refugee players on hand, the U.S. entourage was greeted by exactly one French sportscaster and one Nice-based writer. That, of course, doubled the American media horde."
To the players selected for the U.S. squad, it was a chance of a lifetime.
-For me, I thought it was a great opportunity," Wendell Alexis, the oldest member of the USA's '98 team, recently recalled. -The fact that I spent at that point about 10 years over there, it was another opportunity to play against people that I was very familiar with."
To Tomjanovich it was a challenge he was ready to face.