The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Monday, July 29, 1996                 TAG: 9607290120
        From Atlanta
SOURCE: Bob Molinaro 
                                            LENGTH:   76 lines


With a few minutes remaining in the basketball game between the United States and Croatia, who should appear in the stands but Dennis Rodman, trailed by an entourage of weirdo wannabes.

This brought to three the number of known Chicago Bulls on the premises, a situation that should have guaranteed a better show than what the 30,569 inside the Georgia Dome saw Sunday night.

Later, it was reported that Rodman had invited the American players to join him for a party at a place called the Beach Club.

Someone asked Shaquille O'Neal if he would be attending.

``Can't,'' said Shaq. ``Coach has given me a curfew, 12 o'clock. So I'll be in my room chillin'.''

O'Neal looked at Lenny Wilkens and grinned. Sitting on the other side of Wilkens, Gary Payton laughed. Then O'Neal smiled again, showing off a big wad of blue chewing gum stuck to his front teeth.

Everything's a joke with the Dream Team, including their so-called Olympic competition.

``Everybody thought this game would be the big test,'' O'Neal said with a straight face.

Not everybody. Not the Croatians.

``To be honest, we have no chance to win,'' Toni Kukoc said after Team USA's 102-71 laugher. ``If something big happened, like we shoot 80 percent, then maybe we have a chance.''

Some thought there was a chance of finding entertainment value in Kukoc's matchup against Bulls' teammate Scottie Pippen.

``It was the usual trash talking that we use in practice with the Bulls,'' Kukoc said of his casual confrontation with Pippen.

Four years ago in Barcelona, Pippen, with help from Michael Jordan, tried to embarrass Kukoc.

``The first one in '92 was much more serious,'' Kukoc said Sunday. ``This time, we just play.''

He failed to add, not very well.

The Kukoc-Pippen duel was no more inspired than anything else that took place on the floor.

Kukoc made 4 of 11 shots, and finished with 10 points, though he did have 10 assists. Pippen shot 3 of 9, for nine points, and played only 19 minutes.

Not exactly the stuff of dreams.

Blessedly, these Olympic basketball games go by in a hurry. Start to finish, including a 10-minute halftime, the Americans and Croatians were done in one hour, 15 minutes.

From his press-row seat, a German magazine editor took it all in. ``They dominate,'' he said of the U.S. team, ``but there's no spark.''

He's right. But a spark isn't required when the opponent comes out as spiritless as the Croatians.

In the postgame chat session, someone with an Eastern European accent mentioned to Wilkens that the Lithuanian coach had dared to suggest the U.S. team was ``vulnerable.''

``Who said that?'' Wilkens asked, barely able to contain a laugh. ``I'm sure he didn't mean anything by it.''

Maybe the U.S. will meet Lithuania in the semis or final. Maybe then they will find a spark.

Detractors of the Dream Team concept are told that, one day, the rest of the world will catch up with our NBA pros. Who said that? Not O'Neal.

``There's an old saying that goes, `On any given night, any team can beat you,' '' said Shaq.

``But we don't believe in that. We believe we're going to win every game, period. That's p-r-d.''

Cue the laugh track. ILLUSTRATION: Associated Press

The Dram Team's Charles Barkley drives past Croatia's Zan Tabak

during the first half.

USA 102