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Same team, different dream

You'd know the first guy anywhere, because it seems that he lives everywhere. He hangs from the rim, and he mugs for the camera like a giant cartoon figure. He looks a lot like Shaquille O'Neal, presenting us with another precious Olympic moment.

The second guy you wouldn't know if you were holding his driver's license. He stands alone in a cold, gray concrete tunnel in Olympic Stadium, a no name going nowhere. His name is David Popejoy. He is a hammer-thrower. Once, he was 14th in the world.

Two men. Both athletes, both Americans, both Olympians. You could fool yourself into thinking they are teammates, but it isn't true. You could fool yourself into thinking they are at the Games for the same purpose. That isn't true, either.

The Games are a day further from the tragedy today. The numbness is wearing off, the healing has begun. But the aftermath of a disaster is a time for reassessment. Before you can decide whether the Games should continue, you first decide why they are important to begin with. What you are left with is the Olympics are, or should be, the pursuit of noble goals and lofty ideals, of purity and dedication toward a goal that is years in the journey.

Two men. One just signed a contract for $123-million. At his current pay scale, the other one will make $123-million, too. Only it will take him 12,300 years. Or more. Popejoy thinks he made $9,000 last year. He knows he did not make 10.

The truth is this: There are two Olympics going on. One is for the guys with the money, the tennis players, the elite track stars, Shaq and the rest of the United States' basketball team. The other one is for the athletes who scrape and sacrifice and put their lives on hold while they chase a dream that few others notice.

Two men. One stays in a hotel where one teammate, Reggie Miller, griped about the room service. Where another, Charles Barkley, whined about how small the rooms seem considering all the free stuff the team had to pack inside of them. The other stays in the Olympic Village where there are eight to a suite. He doesn't complain. The McDonald's is free.

They would have us call them the Dream Team, but the United States men's basketball Olympians are barely a team, and they are as far from the Olympic dream as you can get. They are rich men who have sleepwalked through the competition to satisfy their shoe endorsements. They are as guaranteed of victory as seal-bashers.

Two men. One is going to win the gold medal. The other did not qualify for the finals.

The dichotomy is not lost on Popejoy. He stands in the tunnel, and he shakes his head.

"I wonder if you took a poll of the athletes, how many want them here," he said. "I don't think many would. It isn't the same thing to them. They aren't after the same thing."

How could they be? You throw a hammer, and the entire focus of your life is the Olympics. You shoot a basketball, and there are scholarships and shoe deals and the NBA. There are all-star games and movie deals and free-agency.

And there is nothing wrong with it. Except that it does not belong in the Olympics. This should be the rule of thumb: If the Olympics are not the pinnacle of your sport, the absolute center stage, then the sport should not be here.

Two men. One has a movie out. The other one has weeks where he cannot afford to rent a movie.

Take the night of the Opening Ceremonies. Popejoy waited in Atlanta Stadium with the team, feeling the national pride swell inside him, letting the energy of the night take over. He noticed there were no basketball players. They were waiting elsewhere. It was only after the athletes began to enter the stadium that the basketball players joined in, mugging for the camera, acting as if they were in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. When it was over, the basketball players were whisked away. Popejoy waited two hours for a bus.

"It's like they were cherry pickers," said Popejoy, using a basketball term for a player who doesn't do the dirty work, who just abandons his post and flies downcourt for the points and the glory.

Two men. One had an easy trip here. He is one of the most dominant centers in the game, and so the Olympics called and asked please. The other slung an odd bit of hardware around vacant lots with no one watching. No one would have cared if Popejoy had not come. No one noticed that he did.

But everyone notices the Dream Team. They rule the airwaves. After the bomb, Jim Gray rushed breathlessly onto the television to assure us the players were all right. They are more celebrities here than competitors, closer to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the stands than Popejoy on the field.

This is not the way we envision ourselves as a nation, as fat cats who have no challengers. We think of ourselves as the plucky underdogs fighting to the end. Is that what the Olympics have come to?

Perhaps, says Popejoy. And then he says the darndest thing. He says he hopes the Dream Team loses.

"I think that's what I would enjoy most, is someone else beating them," Popejoy said. "The Olympics are about moments. Can you remember how great it was when the U.S. beat the Russians in hockey? This would be 10 times greater than that."

There are those who will suggest Popejoy is un-American with such comments. It is closer to reality to say that he is the most typical of Americans. There is a growing segment that seems to want nothing more than to see this team stumble. At least that way, the fans can see a happening. They are not seeing basketball.

A small pocket of fans sat behind a backboard Friday night as the United States crushed a Croatian team _ the silver medalists of 1992 _ that had admitted it had no chance to win. Toni Kukoc said to win, "we would have to shoot 80 percent, and they would have to play terrible." When the second-place team has all but surrendered, anything after halftime looks like running up the score.

Two men. O'Neal says he's not about the money, but all he wants to do is drink Pepsi and wear Reeboks, his sponsors. Popejoy wants to see an Olympics without sponsors.

"I think it's fine to make money," he said. "But maybe they could say that if you make so much, you can't compete in the Olympics. Maybe in eight years, 12 years, we'll go back to the Olympics having only amateurs."

It will not happen. But it's nice that one of the two thinks it should.

Two men. One is the Olympics as they are. One is the Olympics as they should be.

You figure out which is which.