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SIR CHARLES IS SIR KNUCKLEHEAD

FOR A WHILE there on Friday night the situation was critical for the Dream Teamers. They were losing to the Australian Olympic Team in the Delta Center. They were down by three points with only 36 minutes left in the game.

Not to worry. The Americans finally battled back and pulled out another victory. The score was 118-77. Whew!Afterward, the Aussies' coach said his team got what it came for.

Apparently, they flew all the way from Sydney just to get their heads handed to them on a plate.

The outcome, of course, wasn't surprising. But this was: Along the way, the Dream Team acted like a Nightmare, with Charles Barkley and Gary Payton starring in the role of the Ugly American (heeeeee's baaaack).

After two Dream Team experiences - in the '92 Olympics and the '95 World Championships - Americans still don't know how to be good winners. They only know how to win. They're still jawing and bullying and grabbing.

Late in the first half, Australia's Shane Heal took a three-point shot from deep in the corner. As the shot was released, Barkley sent him sprawling to the floor. Heal, apparently not one to back down, despite his 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, climbed to his feet and called Barkley a name unsuitable for the family newspaper. That led to a confrontation between the two of them as they moved up the court.

After another minute or so of play, the matter seemed forgotten, but it wasn't. As Heal headed for the bench during a timeout, Barkley blocked his path at midcourt. When Heal tried to go around him, Barkley grabbed him by the jersey and jawed at him until referees finally separated them.

And this still wasn't the end of it. Gary Payton had to jump into the fray and dish up some trash talk for Heal late in the half.

This wasn't supposed to happen. Dream Team III was supposed to a gentleman's club, no bullies allowed. Two members of Dream Team II - Shawn Kemp and Larry Johnson - were left off the team precisely for that reason. Their boorish behavior in last summer's world championships made them persona non grata.

Before Friday's game, Chuck Daley, the coach of Dream Team I, told a Salt Lake radio station that when USA Basketball assembled Dream Team III it looked for players who would conduct themselves with "dignity." Kemp and Johnson didn't fit the bill.

Even as Daley talked of dignity, you wondered if he had forgotten about the presence of Barkley. He and Payton didn't perform with dignity in the first half of Friday's game.

You might say that Heal had it coming for calling Barkley a name, never mind the hit he took after releasing his shot. But the Americans were already pounding the Australians, and Barkley should have laughed off the incident. At the very least he shouldn't have stirred the matter up again during the timeout. And who invited Payton into the matter?

Barkley said he was only defending himself, but it seems revealing that somehow he and Payton would get involved in such a position. Why does it only happen to Charles? Can you imagine this happening to, say, David Robinson or Grant Hill? Hakeem Olajuwon?

It is more than a little coincidental that Barkley and Payton were the last two players named to the team. When the Dream Team was chosen almost a year ago, only 10 positions were filled, with two spots to be named later. Eventually, Barkley and Mitch Richmond were given those spots. Payton was recently named to the team after Glenn Robinson surrendered his spot because of an injury.

Payton's anger has gotten the best of him many times in NBA games, and probably played a big part in why he was originally passed over in the Dream Team selection. Barkley, who has been at the center of several ugly confrontations in bars and on basketball courts over the years, created international incidents with his behavior in the '92 Olympics (remember Angola).

But if USA coach Lenny Wilkens was concerned with Barkley's behavior on Friday he wasn't letting on. He gave the Charles-will-be-Charles explanation and said Heal wasn't smart to confront Barkley. "You don't know what he'll do," he said. "Go after somebody else." He explained such confrontations on the court as a "macho thing." Charles, he said, "is a macho sort of guy."

Fine, but USA Basketball, which should have learned its lesson, should know the risks of having such macho guys on the team. Barkley brings fun and personality to the team, but he also brings bad sportsmanship.

"We're going to defend ourselves," said Barkley. "If the American press wants to make us the bad guys, so be it." But that explanation isn't good enough. Barkley is wearing the uniform of the USA now, not the NBA. When he behaves poorly, he doesn't merely cast himself and/or his teammates as "bad guys;" he casts all Americans as bad guys.

Predictably, Barkley turned on his considerable charm after the game and embraced Heal before the teams headed for their locker rooms. But Heal wasn't finished with Charles. A half-hour later he headed for the interview room where the Dream Team was meeting with the media and searched for Barkley. More trouble? Hardly.

"One thing I've got to do is get my picture taken with Charles," he said.