NEW YORK — USA Basketball met last week in Indianapolis and its 10-member Selection Committee convened in New York over the weekend to dissect America’s lousy sixth-place finish at the 2002 World Basketball Championships and to devise an invincible game plan regarding the qualifier tournament. Specifically, who will coach and who will play next summer at a still-to-be-determined site (Mexico City, Puerto Rico or Toronto) and, if eligible, in the Athens 2004 Olympics.

Luckily for you, some pertinent info has trickled out of the hush-hush summit that harmonizes with the stuff I knew to be true.

First of all, Hall of Famer Larry Brown is all but a living lock to get the nod as a result of his long-term affection and connection with USA Basketball. Aside from his impeccable coaching credentials, Brown has assisted on two Olympic champions (1976 and ’96). In ’96 he replaced Rudy Tomjanovich (health) and piloted the team to a qualifying victory in Puerto Rico, and was a member of the 1964 team in Tokyo that won the gold.

In other words, no matter how many stars in Phil Jackson’s planetarium grandstand their inclination to participate if he were the chosen curator, the Laker Laureate has no chance of getting the gig.


Because Jackson has been largely standoffish and uncooperative with USA Basketball, if not downright discouraging concerning the involvement of his players in international competition. As a nine-time coach of NBA championship teams he doesn’t quite see the value of his meal tickets taking a brief break in between The Finals and the beginning of an extended mission to win medals.

Considering what’s at stake (a $2-million bonus per Laker title), who can really denounce Jackson’s self-centered motives?

Those responsible for assembling an All-Star squad of the utmost quality, one that won’t dishonor our country, the NBA and, ahem, the Selection Committee, that’s who.

Not that Shaq was without a valid excuse (as if he needed one after volunteering for the ’96 Olympics and ’94 World Championships) for declining to play last summer; his toe required surgery and it’s still not right.

Still, Shaq has yet to suit up for USA Basketball since The Zen Master arrived in L.A., whereas Kobe Bryant never has, and many members are convinced Jackson has been whispering naughty nothings in their ears. Twice in the last two years, Kobe begged off after accepting invitations.

In all fairness, Kobe isn’t easily manipulated and, for the most part, does whatever he pleases (not that Jackson wasn’t encouraging him to rest). The same can be said for former disciples of Jackson — Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen both played on the 1992 Dream Team.

Pippen also joined Shaq on the ’96 squad and Jordan was a golden collegian on the ’84 team as well. In any event, after the summer’s fundamentally unsound setbacks (and their complementary egocentricity) to Argentina, Yugoslavia and Spain, a furious peanut gallery demanded to know, “Who were the masterminds who created such a sorry outfit?”

More evocatively, I say, “Who were the geniuses who picked the Selection Committee?”

The answer is as difficult to ascertain as it is to uncover the nameless brain busters that control the annual Hall of Fame inductees.

What is known is the current USA Basketball Selection Committee is comprised of: Chairman Stu Jackson (no vote; forfeited forever after dealing a future Memphis Grizzlies first rounder to the Pistons for antique Otis Thorpe — payable in June and only protected if it’s the No. 1 pick), C.M. Newton, San Antonio Spurs guard Steve Smith, New Jersey Nets VP Rod Thorn, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak, Philadelphia 76ers GM Billy King, Golden State Warriors GM Garry St. Jean, Detroit Pistons president Joe Dumars, Utah Jazz GM Kevin O’Connor and Phoenix Suns President Bryan Colangelo.

“The process of choosing a coach already has begun,” confirmed one of its members, “and, yes, Larry is the front-runner. As great a coach as Phil is, he’s not really being considered.”

As much as anything, offered another member, the committee resents Jackson’s condescending attitude.

“Evidently Phil sees himself as a savior. For years, he’s distanced himself from USA Basketball and made very few friends. Now that our reputation is soiled he’s willing to sacrifice his precious time in order to resuscitate it . . . out of the goodness of his heart, of course. Who needs him!?!”

What USA Basketball needs most is an upgrade of talent and that’s exactly what it’s going to get.

According to sources, Kobe, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson (if he promises not to throw his wife out of the Olympic village naked), Ray Allen, Jason Kidd, Chris Webber (if it doesn’t violate parole) and Michael Finley have been approached about their interest in participating in the qualifying tournament and the 2004 Olympics.

The response has been 100 percent favorable except for Shaq, who’s 75 percent committed, and only if Jackson coaches. Sources say don’t expect Paul Pierce or Baron Davis to be asked again due to last summer’s flagrant lack of team play.

“Let’s be real,” underlined yet another committee member. “If we don’t bring our top players we’re not going to win. Even if we do there are no guarantees. Our competition has caught up.”

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