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Olympics, NBA Make a Bad Mix

THE NBA finals are different this year. Usually they are the end of the season; this time they are something else.

This time they are the final preliminaries before the Olympics. This time the pros are not just trying to win the National Basketball Association championship. A lot of them are warming up to be the United States representatives in the Olympic basketball tournament in Barcelona.

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It has come to this, you see.

Being an American means we must win every time. So we aren't sending Shaquille O'Neal from Louisiana State or Jimmy Jackson from Ohio State or Alonzo Mourning from Georgetown. We are sending 11 pros and Christian Laettner, in an offering to the National Collegiate Athletic Association that seems more symbolic than substantive.

Chuck Daly will coach them, and he has been outspoken in his belief that the US - the home of the sport - should never field less than its best basketball team.

"We've exported the game," Daly has said. "We've taught it to people around the world, and now they're catching up with us. I get very upset any time we lose in a tournament, like we did in the Pan American Games."

There is nothing wrong, of course, with wanting to win. Or with wanting to do the best you can do. Or with wanting the best things to happen to your country.

But the Olympics are not war. An Olympic loss is not a tragedy. It does not diminish America. It does not mean we are vulnerable or weak or too addicted to television to pull on a pair of gym shorts and play a game of hoops.

It means only that in a game of athletic competition another country was better than us for one afternoon or one night or one Olympics.

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Good for them. Applaud them.

Somehow, long ago, when I was younger and movies were in black-and-white and airplanes had only propellers, not jet engines, it was the competition that counted. The Olympics were for amateurs. Young men and women who played their games for the joy of playing them.

But the Russians - well, they were the Soviet Union then, the dreaded Communist Menace - began beating us at some of our own games. At basketball and at ice hockey. And a great cry went up: They're using soldiers, professionals, men whose job in their military duty is to perfect their athletic skills.

To make America and Americans look bad.

Four years ago, in the Seoul Olympics, the Soviets beat us in the semifinals, so the US had to be content with a bronze medal - behind Yugoslavia, at that. Georgetown coach John Thompson, who coached the Olympians, came home to a nation shaking its head in disappointment.

So now we use professionals, too.

Once upon a time they took Jim Thorpe's Olympic track and field medals away because he had played professional baseball. It made him a cheat, they said. A fraud.

In his lifetime, Thorpe probably made less money than Carl Lewis has at track and field, and in some circles Lewis is considered a national treasure. Those who feel that way about him do so because he has brought the gold home to America.

He has beaten the Russians. And the Cubans. And the Chinese.

And now we are going to beat them all at basketball again, because we're going to send Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and Clyde Drexler to Barcelona next month.

We're going to send Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin, who were members of the 1984 Gold Medal Olympic team, along with Jordan.

The US will win the gold medal in Barcelona - practically everyone in basketball has accepted that fact. But I question the value of the victory or the quality of the aftertaste.

Ten years or more ago, I had a conversation with Bill Davidson, owner of the Detroit Pistons. It was before the team salary cap went into effect.

"I could try to buy a championship," Davidson told me. "But if I did and we won, it wouldn't mean nearly as much to me as if we won it another way." That philosophy made me especially happy for him when the Pistons won back-to-back championships with Daly as coach in 1989 and 1990.

It was a feeling like the one I got - like the one all of America got - when those kids from Minnesota and Massachusetts and Michigan won the Olympic hockey gold medal in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980. America sent a bunch of kids to the Olympics. They didn't have to win. But they did. And that made victory even richer.

Now we're told we must win the gold medal in basketball in August. Chuck Daly is told that, too. And David Robinson and Charles Barkley and all the rest.

We're sending our best pros to Barcelona to bring back the gold.

Being an American means you must always be first. But somehow there seems less joy in it this way.

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