International men of mystery

Watching Olympic basketball this year was like watching the introduction to a Ken Burns documentary on the downfall of the NBA. It was painfully obvious that the international style of play in Athens was far superior to the neo-NBA product, which is often little more than a glorified one-on-one game.

The extra pass, the dead-eye shooter, selflessness and team unity, which characterized play in the NBA’s golden age, disappeared in the early 1990s as though the traits were attached to Larry Bird’s bad back or Magic Johnson’s HIV.

These enviable traits are now solely ascribed to the international game. Devoid of poisonous Michael Jordan emulators, international teams will focus on the fundamentals, make the game look simple, and so U.S. superstars look simple minded.

In the NBA, a league obsessed with finding the next Air Jordan, there are several franchises who seem to have heeded the lessons of this summer’s Olympics, and the Utah Jazz is one such team.

Thanks to General Manager Kevin O’Connor’s brilliant past, present, domestic and international acquisitions, and one of the best coaches in NBA history, the Jazz look like a team poised to break out this season, and break the NBA wide open in the process.

Last season, many experts thought the Jazz would be the worst team in the league. Some critics went so far as to say the Jazz would be the worst team in NBA history, but that was not the case. On the strength of their unheralded international players and the irreplaceable Jerry Sloan, the Jazz finished at 42-40, one game out of the playoffs in the West. The team was hardly the worst in any respect.

In the off-season, the Jazz supplemented their fearsome foreigners with more offshore talent in Mehmet Okur, and some blue-collar, American savvy in Carlos Boozer, giving the Jazz some size to match their swing.

O’Connor’s principal acquisitions look even better thanks to Carlos Arroyo’s breakout Olympic performance, Matt Harpring’s healthy return and Gordon Giricek’s shooting performance down the stretch last year.

The Jazz have looked good enough this preseason to earn a No. 9 ranking from ESPN.com’s NBA power rankings. That puts them ahead of Dallas, Memphis, the L.A. Lakers, and all but three Eastern Conference teams, just to name a few.

Despite all of the hoopla, Sloan’s preseason musings have been typically demonstrative. He’s down on his team’s conditioning, down on Kirilenko’s early struggles, and is pessimistic about the fact that many of his players are playing in the first years of fat contracts.

But if you weed through Sloan’s perpetually effective negativity, you come to some basic facts about the Jazz. They have a drastically improved inside, with the addition of Boozer and Okur. Also adding to this is the subtraction of the sulking, sluggish and stupid Greg Ostertag. They have two intelligent, hardworking and unselfish point guards in Arroyo and Raul Lopez to run their offense. They have a wealth of small forwards who can perform any task necessary, and they have that same perpetually effective, albeit negative coaching genius to run the show.

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the international makeup of the Jazz. One of several proposed starting lineups for opening night will include a Puerto Rican, a Turk, a Russian, a Croatian and one Boozer, who I refuse to classify as an American given the negative connotations that the word now carries in a basketball sense.

There is neither a bonafide star in the starting lineup, nor a lottery pick. And the Jazz is the only team in the NBA who can claim either distinction. They’re a bunch of unselfish, team-oriented basketball players in the mold of the New England Patriots, and all successful international basketball teams.

If this team is as successful as it can be this season, and in seasons to come, then we might finally see a return to the NBA glory days. Although if the Jazz do become the franchise blueprint for the rest of the league, then we might think about changing the NBA name to the International Basketball Association, just to be accurate.

[email protected]