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SIXERS' BROWN IS LOCK TO COACH TEAM USA

USA Basketball met earlier this week in Indianapolis and its 10-member Selection Committee convened in New York the last couple of days to dissect America's lousy sixth place finish 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 going in.

First of all, Hall of Famer Larry Brown is all but a living lock to get the coaching nod as a result of his long-term affection and connection with USA Basketball. Aside from his impeccable credentials, Brown has assisted on two Olympic champions ('76 and '96), replaced Rudy Tomjanovich (health) and piloted the '96 team to a qualifying victory in Puerto Rico, and was a '64 gold-medal winner.

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

Why? 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 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 motive?

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 Games) 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 who 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 (my bad), 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 played on the '92 Dream Team. Pippen also joined Shaq on the '96 squad and Jordan was golden a second time as a collegian on the '84 team.

In any event, after last summer's fundamentally unsound setbacks 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), C.M. Newton, Spurs vet Steve Smith, Nets VP Rod Thorn, Laker GM Mitch Kupchak, Sixer GM Billy King, Warrior GM Garry St. Jean, Pistons president Joe Dumars, Jazz GM Kevin O'Connor and 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."

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, Ray Allen, Jason Kidd, Chris Webber and Michael Finley have been approached about their interest in participating in the qualifying tournament and the Olympics. The response has been almost all favorable.

(Peter Vecsey is a columnist for the New York Post.)

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