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NBA Olympic Dropouts

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW. And this is The Score.

14-year-old Courtney Kupets is taking a brief moment to celebrate the fact that her torn Achilles tendon healed in time for her to win the US Gymnastics Nationals this week. Now her sights are on Athens. 40-year-old long jump king Mike Powell is lifting his skills out of retirement in hopes of leaping to a comeback medal this summer. Loveable heavyweight wrestler Rulon Gardner has survived lost digits to frostbite but yet again qualified to wrestle for the Stars & Stripes, following his gold in Sydney.

They-re young and old, tiny and huge. Athletes across America are feeling the squeeze of the next two months and three days, the short time left between now and the Opening Ceremonies for the Athens Games. Just now, they-re meticulously orchestrating their taper, their nutrition, their mental focus-all in a pursuit of excellence come their day to peak and perform in August.

There-s no way to overstate it. To stand on the medal platform at the Games is a rare, lofty, once-in-a-lifetime achievement.

So how do Kupets and Powell and Gardner feel when, day by day, they pick up the sports page and read that yet another NBA star has decided to drop from Team USA? Mike Bibby and Karl Malone are exhausted. They need some rest. Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady are getting married. They-ve got wedding cakes to pick out. Shaquille O-Neill and others just can-t swing the trip because of prior commitments. Shaq is now widely quoted as saying he-s already been to Greece. Why make another trip? When pool reporters asked if he visited the Parthenon, he said he went to a number of clubs but couldn-t remember any of their names. Just when the rest of us were thinking Athens, Parthenon and all, will bring goose bumps as the Games unfold before the ancient and storied backdrop of Greece.

Only two of the original nine NBA players picked for the team are still committed. Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan. The other seven have withdrawn. So have others who have been approached. Several have cited concerns over terrorism. That has aroused irate criticism from a lot of fans. One man, Kevin Snyder of Allentown, Pennsylvania, wrote to USA Today this week: &quotThe; USA-s good enough for them to earn their millions, but not good enough to represent in the Olympics."

I personally don-t sit in judgment over anybody who decides it-s not safe for them to be in Athens. It-s just odd that so many NBA players are playing the terrorism card when very few athletes from other sports have expressed those fears. Sounds like a handy excuse. Being an Olympian just doesn-t seem to mean much to many of the NBA superstars.

Dropping the sham that was so-called amateurism has worked out in most Olympic sports. It is now commonly accepted that an Olympic athlete conducts himself as a professional. He needs money to train, to travel. We-re no less inspired to witness Michael Johnson puff his chest out to break the tape at the finish line because we know he might make a couple of million along with his gold medal.

But the one sport where the pro concept seems to have failed miserably is basketball. At least on the men-s side.

That first Dream Team, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, et al, in Barcelona, 1992, set the precedent. Not only did they not stay in the Athlete-s Village, one of the most coveted among Olympic experiences--the Dream Team didn-t even stay in Barcelona. They were more comfortable down the coast and jet setted in for practice and Games, totally removed from the other 10,000 or so Olympic participants. With all the recent drop-outs for this year-s Team USA, there is some concern that we will be embarrassed in Athens, as we were two years ago when the US National Team was eliminated at the World Championships without a medal. I-m not worried about embarrassment. The NBA is so deep and rich with super talents that our team will no doubt be extraordinary. It-s watching NBA players- disregard for the Olympic spirit that-s embarrassing.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW. And that-s The Score.

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