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Rooting for a Dream Team slam-dunk

Wayne and Craig are peeling the labels off their Genuine Drafts and muttering obscenities. On the TV in front of them the Dream Team is toying with tonight's victim du jour, which happens to be noted basketball powerhouse Lithuania. Somehow, the Lithuanians keep the game close; at one point, the score is 40-40. But now the inevitable is happening, and the cat is devouring the mouse.

Wayne Nutley and Craig Valentine are a couple of tile setters. Two blue collar guys who stopped in for a beer at Bleachers Sports Restaurant in St. Petersburg before they headed home to Tampa.

They're also serious fans. They watch senior golf and those fishing shows. They get ESPN and ESPN2. And during these Olympics, they're watching and rooting for all the American teams.

Except one.

"I hope somebody kicks their asses before it's over," Wayne said as David Robinson dunked the ball. "This is like watching the Globetrotters play that team . . . "

The Generals?

"Yeah," Wayne said. "The ones who are supposed to lie down and make the Globetrotters look good. You always know who's going to win."

"These guys," Craig added, "are just here to get endorsements."

Well before the game ended and the United States won 104-82, Wayne and Craig had switched to a baseball game. Even NBC was showing something else.

At another time, during any other Olympic Games, rooting against the United States in a public place would be a matter of high treason. Blasphemy.

You just don't dis the red, white and blue.

But this is different.

First, there's the money. It's not easy to feel a deep connection to someone who's making $120-million over the next seven years. In the NBA, even the ballboys make seven figures.

The most lucrative contract in the NFL is the one quarterback Drew Bledsoe has with the New England Patriots. He gets about $6-million a year. Baseball's high dollar man is Seattle Mariners outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., who just renegotiated his contract and will get an average of $8-million a year next season.

But both Bledsoe and Griffey will make less than half of what Shaquille O'Neal will make next season ($17-million) with the Los Angeles Lakers. (In 1979, Lakers owner Jerry Buss paid $16-million for the entire team.)

Still, O'Neal will only make about half of what Michael Jordan will make ($30-million) next season.

To Wayne and Craig and a lot of others, the Dream Teamers are simply charter members of that exclusive club known as the NBA (New Billionaires Association).

Now ask yourself what these two guys in a bar have in common with Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen or Penny Hardaway? They can't dunk, they can't run up and down a court without throwing up, and the closest they'll come to a shoe contract is a sales slip from PayLess.

They don't know the Dream Team and can't relate to them. And if you can't relate to someone, it's easy to resent them.

"What I hear most people say is that either they don't care, or if the Dream Team lost, they wouldn't be upset," said Bleachers owner Neel Voss. "The games aren't much of a draw, either. There's nobody getting here early to get a good seat."

Like a lot of people, Voss won't watch the Dream Team "unless the game is close and they might lose.

"With most of these athletes," Voss said, "their goal is to make it here. The Dream Team's goal is to win the NBA crown. This is a vacation for them. They're not going to cry if they lose, like these other kids are.

"This isn't an Olympic event. It's a bully showcase."

He's right.

The Dream Teamers are pampered, coddled and isolated. They're staying at the Omni Hotel downtown, not in the Olympic village. And they're overexposed. Didn't we just get finished watching most of these guys in the NBA playoffs? And aren't they in every other commercial on TV?

Kazaam! indeed.

The Dream Team is in our face 12 months a year, but the weightlifters, water polo players, cyclists and distance runners get the spotlight for a couple of minutes once every four years.

How much did you read or hear about Kerri Strug before this week? Or Tom Dolan? Or even Naim Suleymanoglu, aka Pocket Hercules?

More cause for resentment.

But whose fault is that?

"We know a lot of people want us to fail," said Dream Team forward Karl Malone. "But we're going to disappoint them."

There's an old saying that a team is only as good _ or bad _ as its competition. The 1985 Lakers were a great team. But they were made far better by the Boston Celtics.

The Dream Teamers are great, too. But so far, they've been made mediocre by the Angolans, the Brazilians and the Lithuanians. If you notice though, the scores this time are a little closer and the opposing players aren't as intimidated as they used to be.

"They don't want to take pictures with us before the game anymore," Barkley said earlier this week. "They're not out there asking for autographs. They're not shaking or anything like they did in the past.

"They want to beat us."

The problem could be that we don't know what we want.

When the world started to catch up to the United States in basketball, and when the college all-stars we sent to the Olympics in 1988 only won the bronze medal, we willingly trotted out the pros. The result was predictable: U.S.A. 116, Designated Patsy 48.

We thought that's what we wanted. But after Magic, Larry and Michael left and there were no true superstars on the team, the lopsided victories got boring and we started to pine for something in a 78-77 double overtime. We wanted more Miracles on Ice.

And that's impossible.

We created the Dream Teams and we have to live with them, which is not a bad thing at all. It's just that we have to remind ourselves that as Americans, we have a unique ability to build people up and knock them down.

And no one knows that better than our current targets _ the extremely talented members of the 1996 U.S. Olympic men's basketball team.

"We're 3-0 and we're kicking some behind, and we're still taking criticism," Reggie Miller said after the game against Lithuania. "There's no way we can win. We can go out and beat China by 50 and you'll say it's not fair. So we can't win.

"So all we've got to do is answer these questions with a smile and go on about our business and in the end, the U.S. will have the gold medal. That's all they'll say 10 years from now."

Even a veteran like Lenny Wilkens, the Dream Team's calm, even-tempered coach, showed the frustration of someone trapped in a classic no-win situation.

"Nobody is ever satisfied," Wilkens said after Wednesday's game. "That's the way the world is today, and that's why we have so many damn problems.

"We're always looking for something, rather than trying to bring things together."

If the '96 Dream Team is guilty of anything, they're guilty of doing exactly what we've asked of them.

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