SYDNEY, Australia — Eight years ago, when NBA players arrived at the Barcelona Olympics, it was Moses at the Red Sea. Everything stopped. Everyone stared. The first game of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and the rest of the Dream Team was an E-ticket ride, dignitaries, high rollers, impossible to get a seat.

Well. Here we are, two Olympics later, and Sunday night, in an arena dotted with empty seats, the third installation of the NBA’s Olympic army took the floor. It wasn’t exactly Moses. No seas parted. I did see a guy at the concession stand spill his coffee, but that was probably coincidence.

Let’s face it. The glow is off the concept. The star is off the trailer door. Even American fans find our Olympic basketball roster a bit …murky. Shareef Abdur-Rahim? What team is he on again? Or Antonio McDyess? Or Vin Baker?

Back in 1992, the raging debate was whether sending our NBA stars was appropriate or necessary. That’s a dead argument now. They’re in for good — at least those who bother to come — and it’s rapidly becoming a case of “be careful what you wish for.”

Sunday night, there were spectators who came not to see the American millionaires but rather their opening-round opponent, China — a team with three guys over 7 feet, including one who is 7-feet-5.

And, of course, most of the place was rooting for the underdog.

China was decent. Not polished. Not strong. But impressive in a way. For nearly five minutes, its players held a lead over the United States.

A lead? Yes. A lead. The Chinese blocked shots. They hit three-pointers.

One of the 7-foot giants hit a fadeaway trey over the outstretched arms of Alonzo Mourning. Another slapped away a Gary Payton lay-up attempt.

China led 9-5, 13-7 and 16-12.

I know. I know. Five minutes is five minutes. But it used to be five seconds.

“When they were ahead, I heard people in the stands going ‘Ooooooooh,’ ” Portland’s Steve Smith said afterward. “And I realized we’re in a no-win situation.”

Which is pretty ironic for a team that can’t lose.

Plenty of Kodak moments

Eight years ago, when the Dream Team opened against Angola, it was such a wipeout, the only memorable moment was when the defeated Angolans asked to pose for photos with the NBA stars.

There is no such stargazing anymore. After Sunday’s inevitable loss (the final score was 119-72) the Chinese players were still fairly nonplussed.

“It is not so hard to block the NBA players,” said Wang Zhizhi, one of the seven-foot gang, “if the referees are not in your way.”

Wow. Complaining about the officials. Is this guy ready for the league or what?

Wang was a second-round draft pick of the Dallas Mavericks last season. His countryman, 7-foot-5 Yao Ming, is destined to follow. And remember, China is not a team that has a powerful basketball tradition. If these guys can take a lead on the Americans, sooner or later, somebody is going to take one and hold it.

And when that happens, when America loses an Olympic basketball game — and it will come, I believe, within the next 12 years — the excuses will be predictable.

We didn’t have our best guys here, they’ll say. So? That was already true Sunday night. No Shaq. No Kobe. No Grant Hill. And no great reasons. NBA stars are less and less impressed by the Olympics. And with their massive bank accounts and general aversion to summer travel — especially to places like Athens, site of the 2004 Games — this isn’t going to change.

It’s more important to the other teams than it is to the United States, they’ll say. Yeah? So? That was also true Sunday night.

The fact is, we may play the game better than anyone else, but we don’t own it. Other countries are improving. They take international play more seriously. Yugoslavs, Russians, Germans, are all commonplace now in the NBA.

One day, some country in some Olympics is going to have it all going, the crowd will be behind it, the NBA guys will be thinking, “Oh, come on, we don’t lose.”

And bang. We will.

It’s all a numbers game

Until then, we’ll have more nights like Sunday, where a team gets its moral victory by taking a temporary lead — before losing by 50.

Until then, we’ll have the opponents referring to our guys by name (“Alonzo Mourning was not as furious tonight as he seems on television,” one Chinese player said) while our guys refer to them by numbers (“No. 15, he’s pretty tall,” Payton said).

And until then, the slide in interest will continue. In Barcelona, NBC couldn’t show enough of the Dream Team. Remember? You saw nearly every wipeout minute of every wipeout game. This year? Who cares?

I remember in Barcelona when hundreds of reporters crushed the arena halls to gape at Jordan and Johnson after their opener. Sunday night, there were fewer than three dozen reporters waiting to speak with the 2000 squad. And most of them were American.

“You were talking to one of the Chinese players during a time-out,” someone mentioned to Smith, the former Spartan.

“Yeah, No. 9. He came up to me and started a conversation.”

“What did he say?”

“Something about Canada.”

Eight years ago, it would have been, “Could you sign my jersey?”

Times change. Fortunes, too. This isn’t 1992. And to borrow a Chinese symbol, the NBA’s Great Wall ain’t what it used to be.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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