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Injured Star and Dream Team Challenge Doesn’t Dim Croatia’s Olympic Dreams

Croatia faces a tough Lithuania team and was thrown into the same pool with the Dream Team, which loosens up Saturday night against Argentina.

Toni Kukoc ATLANTA, July 20 (AP) - Don’t cry for Argentina. Or at least, save some tears for Croatia. The 1992 men’s basketball silver medalists’ hopes for a medal could be hurting, like Toni Kukoc’s broken left thumb, after their first game of the Olympics on Saturday.

Thanks to the unluck of the draw, Croatia faces a tough Lithuania team and was thrown into the same pool with the Dream Team, which loosens up Saturday night against Argentina. Croatia’s test comes less than two weeks after their best player fractured the top of his left, shooting thumb in an exhibition game.

"How important is Toni to us? That’s like asking what Michael Jordan brings to the Chicago Bulls," said Croatia’s Dino Radja, who plays forward for the Boston Celtics. Kukoc charged out onto the Morehouse College court for practice Friday afternoon and effortlessly swished his first shot from the top of the three-point circle. But as the workout proceeded, he at times appeared to have trouble receiving passes.

"So-so. If I play, I play," Kukoc said, thumb buried in a cup of ice after practice. "We’ll see tomorrow."

Lithuania, which practiced in a high school gym Friday, was prepared to face Kukoc. "Oh, he’ll play," Donnie Nelson, a Lithuania assistant coach, said without hesitation. "He’s not here for any other reason. He didn’t come to observe the Croatian badminton team."

Yugoslavia, another Big Three team (that is, after the Giant One from the United States), is in the opposite pool. "It’s going to have medal-round intensity to it," Nelson said. "It’s unfortunate that both teams have to get to thrown into that situation right from the get-go, but that’s the draw and we’ve got no control over it."

"It’s a big game," agreed Radja. "I can’t change that we play them the first game. I don’t care, really. If you want to win a medal, you have to beat them sometime."

The three leading non-U.S. medal contenders, not coincidentally, each include at least two NBA players on their rosters. Besides Kukoc, the forward who filled the Bulls’ sixth man role last season, and Radja, who had the Celtics’ top scoring average at 19.7 points in an injury-shortened season, Croatia also has the Toronto Raptors’ 7-foot backup center, Zan Tabak. He’ll have to battle Lithuania’s 7-3 Arvydas Sabonis, coming off a strong rookie season for the Portland Trailblazers. Sabonis and guard Sarunas Marciulionis, who averaged 10.8 points for Sacramento and was recently traded to Denver, each averaged more than 23 points at Barcelona for the Lithuania’s bronze team.

Vlade DivacYugoslavia, left out of the 1992 games because of United Nations sanctions, is led by 6-11 Vlade Divac, traded from Los Angeles to the Charlotte Hornets as a key figure in the NBA’s trading and bidding frenzy, and a Miami Heat guard, Predrag Danilovic. Unlike most of the major sports, competitors in men’s basketball talk longingly of being satisfied with a silver or bronze. "Silver is gold," Nelson summarized.

Croatia, which lost Barcelona star and Nets player Drazen Petrovic to a tragic auto accident less than a year after the 1992 games, came the closest of anyone in their second meeting with the original Dream Team. The final score: 117-85.

No one expects any upsets against the third edition, which headed into play after a 66-point pounding of Greece, Yugoslavia’s first opponent Saturday. While the Dream Teamers will begin their roll to the gold, the U.S. women’s swim team will try Saturday to keep the heavily favored Chinese juggernaut from building too much steam.

"How you do on the first day is going to kind of tell what’s going to happen the rest of the meet," said Amy Van Dyken, probably the best U.S. hope in Saturday’s 100-meter freestyle. Favored is China’s Le Jingyi, who set the 100 free world record of 54.01 seconds at the 1994 world championships in Rome. And while many are still bleary-eyed after Friday night’s opening-cermony blowout, sharpshooters will be earning the Centennial Games’ first medals. Competition begins at 9 a.m. at the Wolf Creek Shooting Complex in the men’s 10-meter air pistol and the women’s 10-meter air rifle.

To learn more...
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