HAMILTON, Ontario — The funny thing about these Dream Team performances: It’s damn hard to tell who won. Is it the team with the long faces, answering questions about a disappointing night? Or the team waving little flags and blowing kisses to its fans?

This was the picture after the determined men of Spain — the ones without names on the backs of their jerseys — lost to the United States in the first round of the world champ ion ship, 115-100. Lost? Why were they so happy? Why were their fans singing and slapping the players on their backs? And the U.S. players? Why were they pursing their lips and shaking their heads and answering questions such as, “Are you upset with your victory tonight?”

Relax. First, you should never be upset with victory. Second, it’s hard to reach your potential when the team you’re playing is a ghost. Dream Team II is facing Dream Team I every time it takes the court, like it or not, and like Rocky II, Ghostbusters II and Major League II, it’s in a can’t-win situation. Too much looking over your shoulder. Add that the team is mostly impatient young NBA stars — who want only to jam, three-point, and jam again — and you begin to understand why the U.S. didn’t squash the Spaniards between its toes as everyone expected.

“When I came out, I heard the Spanish fans singing up in the bleachers,” Joe Dumars said afterward, “and I stopped and watched them. And I said to myself, ‘Hey, we’re playing another country here.’ “

Exactly. Leave it to Dumars, whose powers of observation have always been better than most, to figure it out quickest. It is another country. And another game. Not the NBA. Not college ball. In international play, the court is smaller, the lane is bigger, the three-pointers are shorter, the fouls are called tighter, the game goes by quicker and the arena can be half-empty in the early rounds. Also, there are fans singing, “Ole! Ole! Ole!” and blowing trumpets all the time.

That takes some getting used to. Especially the trumpets.

OK, it’s true, the Spanish team should not, on an average night, be able to keep up with the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Reggie Miller, Dominique Wilkins, Alonzo Mourning, Shawn Kemp, Kevin Johnson, Dumars, etc. And, yes, it’s true, no team ever scored 100 points on Dream Team I.

But that’s the thing about these Dream Team games. They cease to be about wins and losses and are only about point spreads.

“Anything less than 20 points is a defeat for us,” Steve Smith said.
“That’s just how people see it.”

“A lot of our guys were looking at the scoreboard, saying, ‘It’s a 24-point margin. We need six more,’ ” Dumars added. Then he laughed. “The thing about these guys — they’re young; they want to win the whole thing in five minutes.”

Call it the folly of youth. Or just plain folly. But the first game out is hardest for Americans who have never played international ball. You can’t talk to the refs — often they don’t speak English. And the teams you’re playing, unlike NBA teams, are not always looking for the slam.

Sometimes, they’re not even interested.

Take a play late in the second half, when a thin, 30-year- old Spanish player named Rafael Vecina — who looks like an accountant for Price Waterhouse — got the ball about six feet from the basket with Kemp lurking nearby. Vecina took one look at the menacing Kemp and did what most of us would do — went pale. Kemp raised his shoulders, anticipating a collision that he would surely win. But instead, Vecina made a quick toss at the basket, high, very high, high enough that when a surprised Kemp leaped to block it, he couldn’t get it. The ball came down and swished.

Ugly, but still two points.

If you string enough of those together, you have a game. And so it was, for a brief and shining moment, late in the first half, that Spain actually went ahead, 42-41.

“When we made that basket, my whole team, she was up from the bench and was yelling, ‘End the game now! We wish to end the game now!’ ” Spanish coach Lolo Sainz said. “Unfortunately, we knew we could not do this.”

Ah. The disappointments of international affairs.

The Americans stormed back and won handily. But not without questions. And there will be moments before this is over that the U.S. players will also say,
“End it now.” What did we expect? Americans never cared about these world championships before. The only reason they care now is that the big stars are playing. It’s like an off-Broadway show that suddenly becomes a hot ticket because Madonna takes a role in it.

But if you’re gonna play off-Broadway, you have to get used to the lighting. Dream Team II (and the most unfair thing the NBA did was to perpetuate that nickname on these guys) will have to adjust to the tighter, less jam-filled international game — and stop trying to win in five minutes. And stop looking at the scoreboard and doing math.

“The funny thing is,” Smith said, “the Spanish guys lost, and they were happier than we were.”

Thinking back, that’s the one thing this group and Dream Team I have very much in common. What a shame. CUTLINE: Shaquille O’Neal, left, Reggie Miller and Joe Dumars, right, celebrate a basket during the Dream Team’s victory over Spain on Thursday night.

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