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U.S. Endures Tough Ordeal on All Courts

Rest of world wants the NBA action, but isn't ready for the NBA antics.

October 01, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

SYDNEY, Australia — A Chilean soccer player celebrates a goal by flapping his arm and sliding on his belly across the grass, and it's cute.

Maurice Greene celebrates a victory by sticking out his tongue, and it's arrogant.

A victorious Russian wrestler carries his coach around the mat, and it's inspiring.

Jon Drummond mugs with the American flag, and it's tacky.

(One pauses to wonder, since when is it OK to burn the flag, but not to embrace it?)

Those were just some of the contradictions worth considering today while watching the biggest one of all, the U.S. men's basketball team, for whom an average Olympic experience is only a dream.

The men defeated France in the gold-medal game, 85-75, but the question remains. Did they have a gold-medal experience? Can a team with nothing to gain here but grief ever have a gold-medal experience?

There are no easy answers.

Nowhere is the Olympic community's distaste for the American sports culture more evident than in the men's basketball venue.

But, in some ways, nowhere are we more American.

Ray Allen screamed after scoring eight consecutive points in the second half. Some fans cringed. But back home, our athletes do that.

"These are players trying to keep their competitive fire burning in an arena with 20,000 people rooting for them to lose," NBA Commissioner David Stern said before the game. "I have no problem with that."

Alonzo Mourning was given a technical foul for yelling at an official, and everyone whistled. But that happens somewhere every night in the NBA.

"Some of our guys don't think they are doing their jobs if they aren't staying on the officials," Stern said.

After the French pulled to within four points in the final 4:24, Kevin Garnett grabbed a rebound, banked in a shot, and immediately began thumping his fist on his chest.

Fans murmured. But c'mon people. Our athletes do that. Maybe after rolling a big strike or sinking a big putt, even you've done that.

"It's hard to reprogram people overnight," Stern said.

In most cases, why would you want to?

The Olympics is about nothing if not a blending of customs and traditions.

When Vince Carter pointed to the crowd and blew a kiss after his reverse dunk essentially cinched the victory, was that any less traditional then an African runner smooching the ground?

Being the impulsive fools we are, we sometimes carry it too far.

When those U.S. sprinters joked around during the national anthem Saturday night, that was carrying it too far.

When Gary Payton taunted the French bench today, he embarrassed himself.

When assistant coach Larry Brown chased a referee off the court after the U.S. escape against Lithuania, he embarrassed all of us.

But for the most part, the U.S. basketball team behaved like a decently behaved NBA team, admirable under the circumstances.

There are, last we looked, no NBA teams for whom one loss would be a mark that would stay with them the rest of their careers.

"These guy are in a no-win situation," Stern said.

There are also no NBA teams which require their players to play six weeks worth of high-profile games during the summer before rushing off to training camp to being a ninth-month season.

Turns out, these players will actually be a day late to training camp.

"I just told the players that I was very proud of them for working very hard and long under extremely strenuous circumstances," Stern said.

And about the taunting?

"We will deal with the niceties later," he said.

Watching Vin Baker raise his hands and eyes to the sky in prayer after the two-point win over Lithuania, a cynic might wonder why any NBA player would want to subject himself to this in the first place?

If you win big, then you are ripped for being too good. If you barely win, then you are ripped for not being good enough.

And don't even think about losing.

Stern didn't watch the two-point victory over Lithuania in person. He was celebrating the Jewish holiday in a synagogue. But he later watched it on tape, all the way to the final missed Lithuania three-point shot, just to make sure it still didn't fall.

"It's going to happen," Stern said of a U.S. loss. "My thought is, I'd like it to happen a few more years down the road. When I'm watching it on TV. From my retirement community."

Amid all these issues, one thing remains important to remember.

We didn't ask for this. We didn't want this. The U.S. voted against the inclusion of professional basketball players in the Olympics. The NBA said it wasn't ready.

The rest of the world insisted. The rest of the world wanted the financial and educational benefits that our Dream Team could offer.

We were outvoted. So here we are. Walking a tightrope. Biting the bullet.

"It means a lot more because it was a little more challenging," Alonzo Mourning said after today's win. "It wasn't a cakewalk. We had to work for our gold medal. I think that makes us appreciate it all the more."

Mourning missed two Olympic games to be with his wife in Miami for the birth of their daughter. The experience here was so important to the family, the little girl was named Myka Sydney.

During the playing of our national anthem today, Mourning stood solemnly at attention. A hand that once pounded on his chest now rested gently on his heart.


Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address:

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