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U.S. awaits Europe's best

Just 10 days. That's all the time the United States would have needed as an honorary European country.

It has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with hoop dreams. It would have happened in the next week, been a lot more interesting and said so much more about USA Basketball than what happened recently in Puerto Rico.

If only the U.S. could have faced much stiffer competition at the upcoming Eurobasket 2003 than simply whip the junior varsity likes of the Virgin Islands, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela recently in Puerto Rico. Outside of Argentina, the Americans faced no real test en route to winning the gold medal and an Olympic berth at the Tournament of Americas.

Oh, but the competition in Sweden starting Thursday at Eurobasket 2003 would have been a different story and one that could have given true measure of how much a gap there is between the A-team of U.S. players and the rest of the world.

After a much lesser USA squad embarrassingly failed to earn a medal on its home soil in Indianapolis at the 2002 World Championship, European teams aren't so sure there is a gap. But since the Europeans won't face the USA until the 2004 Athens Olympics, basketball enthusiasts will just have to pay attention to the real international competition about to take place in Europe and wait until next summer for the USA to compete.

"This is probably the most competitive European championships we've had in a long time," said Jon Ingram, FIBA Europe Communications Officer, about Eurobasket 2003.

Eurobasket 2003, which begins Friday and ends with a Sept. 14 championship, is the 2004 Athens Olympic qualifying tournament for teams in Europe. While the USA was the overwhelming favorite in Puerto Rico, several countries have a shot at finishing strong at Eurobasket 2003.

Some of the top countries in the 16-team field include the 2002 World Championships gold-medal winning Serbia & Montenegro (formerly
Yugoslavia), France, Russia, Spain, Lithuania, Greece, Germany, Turkey and
Italy. Even Sweden recently upset France, a team loaded with NBA players, in
an exhibition game.

While Serbia & Montenegro already has a spot in the Olympics by winning the 2001 European championship and the 2002 World Championship, the three other highest placing teams will also earn a spot in Greece. Serbia & Montenegro goes into Eurobasket 2003, however, without Sacramento Kings center Vlade Divac and Detroit Pistons rookie Darko Milicic, which means winning the tournament will be an even tougher task for the favorites.

"They won't be the same team that won the world championship," Ingram said. "Vlade Divac isn't going to play, (Spanish
pro) Dejan Bodiroga isn't going to play and (Spanish pro) Dejan Tomasevic isn't going to play. But they are still the European champions and they
still have a lot of good players. They definitely will go in as
favorites."

Ingram was quick to add, however: "Germany won a bronze in Indianapolis. Spain is
strong. Russia is always strong. Greece is strong. Italy is strong. You
should definitely put France and Turkey in this group as well. It is very
difficult to predict the top 5. It can be any number of teams."

Outside of Team USA's roster of NBA stars, the Tournament of Americas included some NBA players like Canadian all-star Steve Nash (Dallas), Brazil's Nene (Denver)
and Leandrinho Barbosa (Phoenix), Argentina's Manu Ginobili (San Antonio) and Pepe Sanchez (Golden State), Mexico's Eduardo Najera (Dallas) and Puerto
Rico's Carlos Arroyo (Utah).

Ten years ago, there were no NBA players taking part in the European tournament. By 2001, there were 12. Now, there are over 20 and it will even
grow in the future. Two NBA all-stars and several promising youngsters highlight the Eurobasket 2003 rosters.

Serbia & Montenegro's roster still includes all-star Peja Stojakovic (Sacramento), Predrag Drobnjak (Seattle) and Marko Jaric (Los Angeles Clippers). Germany is led by all-star Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas). France's roster includes Tony Parker (San Antonio), Tariq Abdul-Wahad (Dallas), Jerome Moiso (Toronto) and rookies Mickael Pietrus (Golden State) and Boris Diaw-Riffiod (Atlanta). Turkey, Croatia, Spain, Russia, Lithuania and Slovenia all have NBA players on their rosters, while several NBA free-agents, former players and draft picks will be playing.

"Obviously it's significant NBA talent," said Denver Nuggets assistant general manager David Fredman, who will be scouting the tournament. "The other thing is the European players take it more seriously than the American players have in the past, and that goes back to the amount of time they spend training and playing exhibition games. There is more time devoted to it."

How seriously have the European NBA players taken it? Check out this trash-talking.

"I don't think that Serbia will become the European Champions this time," Russia's Andrei Kirilenko told a Russian sports publication Sport-Express. "Their
current team isn't as strong as it was in Indianapolis."

Said Spain's Pau Gasol to PA International: "Spanish basketball is in a good moment, it is improving a lot and there is no doubt we have a national team
with real potential. We are going to show that game after game in the European Championships and obtain a good result to confirm it."

The NBA is also showing that it has a lot of respect for this tournament. As many as 50 NBA personnel from all 29 teams, like Dallas Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson and San Antonio Spurs coach and USA assistant Gregg Popovich, are expected to watch the action.

International basketball simply continues to grow in the NBA. As of Mar. 5, 2003, NBA team rosters featured 65 international players from 34 countries and territories. Who knows? In five years, there may be NBA teams based in Europe and an all-star game that pits American
players against the rest of the world.

Maybe by then the gap will be closed.

Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA and Denver Nuggets for The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.