IN the United States, even well-versed basketball followers would struggle to come up with a single memory from what should be the sport's premier international event - the world championships. ``The worlds mean nothing here,'' says Dave Gavitt, chief executive officer of the Boston Celtics and past president of USA Basketball, the sport's national governing body.
If the quadrennial competition is a blank in the American sports consciousness, it may be because the championships have never been played in the United States. Next summer, though, the event at last moves into a major North American media market when Toronto, a prime candidate for a National Basketball Association expansion franchise, co-hosts the 16-team tournament with Hamilton, Ont., Aug. 4-14. Toronto has stepped in for Belgrade, which had to bow out due to the conflict there that divided its former national team, the reigning world champions.
That Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union (with three titles each) have achieved results superior to those of the US (a two-time winner) hints at another factor gravitating against American interest: The worlds have often been out of sync with US basketball.
Gavitt says the international basketball community ``has never really quite understood our calendar.'' During its formative years, beginning with the inaugural worlds in 1950, the competition was in conflict with the US season, making top collegians unavailable. In recent decades, it has more conveniently been held in the summer, but long after media interest in basketball subsides.
The only coverage the worlds have ever received from any of the three American networks came in 1982, when CBS carried the final game. Otherwise, the Turner Network bought the rights to the 1986 tournament as part of the Goodwill Games. It proved to be a good year for American TV to tune in, as a United States squad led by center David Robinson and Muggsy Bogues came from behind in the final to beat the Soviets.
Various factors, including allowing NBA players into the Olympics, have coalesced in recent years to focus attention on the exciting new possibilities for the world championships. In response, USA Basketball is planning a bid to co-host both the 1998 men's and women's world championships in a first-ever joint tournament.
Gavitt says he expects that the addition of NBA players will make it ``the first real world championship of basketball.'' A media blitz could follow.
``I think television attention worldwide would rival that of soccer's World Cup,'' Gavitt says, adding, ``I personally think it would be the second booster rocket'' - to go along with the US Dream Team's sensational performance at the 1992 Olympics - ``that will propel the sport of basketball to the point where it can go beyond soccer'' in global popularity.
USA Basketball announced the members of next year's team - referred to as Dream Team II - on national TV Saturday. Ten rising NBA stars, including Larry Johnson, who just signed a 12-year, $84-million contract with the Charlotte (N.C.) Hornets, were named to fill all but two roster spots, as the US begins to groom its squad for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Don Nelson of the Golden State Warriors will coach the all-star contingent. Touching other bases
* Shouldn't there be a statute of limitation to prevent college football teams from maintaining imbalanced rivalries? In its long-running series with Maryland, for example, Penn State is 35-1-1. And the Terrapins aren't exactly getting closer to victory, this year losing 70-7 in the most lopsided result yet.
* Assuming Michael Jordan doesn't make a quick about-face and unretire from pro basketball, the reign of the Chicago Bulls has ended. No one realistically expects them to extend their championship string to a fourth consecutive title, and even a deep penetration into the playoffs might be hard to achieve. Nevertheless, the Chicago players now have an opportunity to show that they can win without Jordan, to prove that they weren't just a supporting cast for him. The addition of Croatia's Toni Kukoc, who many consider the best player in Europe, could fill part of the gaping void.
* A pet peeve: When college football scores are rolled on Saturday night sportscasts, it would help if they weren't such a blur. The producers must assume an audience of speed-readers.