SEOUL, South Korea — You can’t win ’em all. But we could. If we sent our best. NBA players? Olympic competition?

“Why not?” people say.

They are saying it loudly today, after Tuesday night’s stunning 82-76 defeat by the Soviet Union, only the second time in Olympic history that a U.S. men’s basketball team has lost. The game was bad. Our team looked disorganzied. Coach John Thompson’s defensive press was picked apart by a mature Soviet group, and the young Americans — who were chosen more for defense than for offense — lacked the firepower to come from behind.

They can only win a bronze medal now.

And that makes some people angry.

“Why should Russia get to win?” they say. “They’re using their country’s best players — everyone knows they’re professionals — while we’re using college kids. If we sent over an NBA team, it would be no contest.”

Until recently, that was against the rules. But now, professional basketball players, western or eastern, are permitted in the Olympic Games. It is up to the individual country to decide. With a simple vote, the U.S. basketball federation could open the Olympic gates to the likes of Magic, Bird and Zeke for 1992.

The question is: Should they?

First consider the following:

1. Who would want to go? You’re talking about at least a five- or six-week investment. NBA players with off-season commitments, or who simply want to rest before the grueling season, might pass up the opportuntiy. Besides, they could get hurt. And the Games are three weeks in a foreign country, living in a dormitory, for no money.

2. Would we be sending the right attitude? The Russians may be using professionals, but the Olympic Games are still the biggest competition those professionals get to see. Maybe that’s why they buried themselves in a cheering pile after Tuesday’s game. Do you think men such as Robert Parish or James Worthy would rouse that kind of emotion for an Olympic win, after they’d tasted the ecstacy of an NBA championship? With pros — no contest You want answers, you go to the source. So I called the best NBA player I know, Isiah Thomas, and asked whether he would play in the Olympics.

“Yeah, I would,” he said. “The only thing I would be worried about would be insurance in case somebody got hurt. You take a franchise player like Michael Jordan. He goes to the Olympics and gets injured, Chicago’s gonna be mad.”

“How would you pick the team?”

“You’d have to do it with tryouts. Whoever the Olympic coach is could decide who he wants.”

“How long would you need to practice?”

“It depends if we were in shape. . . . I think if we spent two weeks working on plays, getting a set style of defense, we could go over there and beat them.”

“Would it be comeptitive?”

“Yeah.” He paused, then chuckled. He had watched the U.S.-Soviet game on Tuesday. “To tell the truth, you start bringing Magic, Bird, myself, Jordan, Malone, Brad Daugherty, John Salley, Rodman, Laimbeer — all of a sudden the game just ain’t fair, you know what I mean?”

Exactly. Let’s be honest. Our NBA stars are the best in the world. Larry Bird’s left hand is better than most international players. The Russian coach, after his team’s dramatic victory Tuesday, said: “I would like to thank the
(NBA) players in America. We watch them and learn from them.”

Sure. As long as they don’t have to play them.

But what’s the point here? Would we really be so happy if the team we sent over clubbed all its opponents to death, then walked off the court saying:
‘See. Told ya we were better.”

Is that what we’re after? Are two losses so terrible? I guess it depends on what you want out of the Olympics. If medals are your measure, then an NBA squad would be the obvious choice. But I think there’s something to be said for the experience of taking part, for the maturing and memories it gives a college-aged kid. I don’t know, for example, if Bimbo Coles is ever going to be an NBA star. Probably not. But he’ll always have these Games to remember.

“That’s true,” Thomas said. “If you pick us, then you cut those kids’ chances. And with NBA guys, you’d probably see the same faces every Olympics. Bird and Magic could play their whole careers.

“I think everybody in the world realizes the Russians did not beat our best team. But we only lost by six points. I think if Hersey Hawkins plays (he was injured) we win.”

He has a point. Two losses in the history of the Olympics is not exactly cause for panic. Tuesday was a single defeat on a single night. “I think,” coach Thompson said after it was over, “we’ll still be allowed back in our country.’

Be honest. Are we really ashamed by a basketball loss? Do we really look bad in the eyes of the world? I would love to see Isiah in these Games; he is a marvelous player. But as he will tell you, his life is already rich with experience. And blowing out China or Egypt might not mean as much to him as to a college freshman whose dreams are still dreams.

Sure, America has the best players. But you can sit on top of the world, and beat everybody up, or you can set an example, and hope others will follow. The truth is, when it comes to Olympic basketball, we very easily could win
’em all.

The question is, do we have to?

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