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Aussies Can't Be Friendly Enough

October 02, 2000|ROBYN NORWOOD

SYDNEY, Australia — By now you know Australians are friendly, but the other day a young man got on an elevator with me and offered a bite of his half-eaten muffin.

"Plenty for two," he said, extending his breakfast.

I've always thought Southerners and the Irish were the nicest people on earth, but I have a new winner.

One day, stranded with another writer at the remote gym where the U.S. men's basketball team held its practices, I was about to call a cab.

The arena manager came out, loaded us into the back seat on either side of his granddaughter's car seat and took us to the station, making a call on his mobile phone along the way.

"You've just been invited to a barbecue this weekend," he said over his shoulder.

Covering basketball at the Olympics is a disorienting experience. The Games go on outside while you sit in a gym watching ordinary preliminaries as Cathy Freeman and Marion Jones run a few hundred yards away.

You are waiting for one thing.

Friday night, it almost happened.

I know the reporters at the track and field were screaming for Lithuania, and I would have loved the chance to write one of the biggest stories I'll ever write.

But as people waited in silent disbelief for the loud and frantic finish when Sarunas Jasikevicius' last-second shot fell a few feet short of one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history, I couldn't help thinking this U.S. team didn't deserve the derision it would have earned.

Yes, Gary Payton says all the wrong things and Vince Carter can't decide whether to smile or swagger.

But Kobe Bryant said no to the Olympics, and Alonzo Mourning said yes, even though it meant he'd have to make a grueling round-trip home for the birth of his daughter, who almost beat him to Miami when she arrived a day early.

Incredibly, the New York Post ripped Mourning for it.

I'll remember the players I watched who were better than I knew, and I thank whoever put my seat next to Jim O'Connell, the marvelous Associated Press basketball writer who covered his 295th Olympic basketball game Sunday and is a prince of a guy besides.

Maybe you knew which Lithuanian player went to Maryland and which one plays for Wake Forest, but Jim could tell you who went to Delaware and Iona too, update you on the Russian point guard's plastic surgery and figure out the arcane FIBA tiebreaker system besides.

I'll remember the Brazilian press, piling on top of one another to stick a dozen mobile phones in the face of Janeth Arcain and a screaming teammate as they broadcast live back to South America after an upset of Russia.

I'll remember watching Sheryl Swoopes in the gold-medal game, thinking I didn't know a player that good existed.

I still can't believe Carter leaped over 7-foot-2 Frederic Weis of France or forget the charm of Weis, wondering if he'd be on the poster of Carter's dunk until he finally tired of the questions about his humiliation.

"Is two points, no?"

I won't forget the disorientation of the 18-hour time difference that meant 4 a.m. Pacific starts and the realization that before the story I wrote about a quarterfinal game appeared in the paper, the semifinal would already have been played.

Most of all, I'll remember the incredible grace and skill of two players in their fifth and final Olympics, Australia's Andrew Gaze and Teresa Edwards of the U.S.

I think of Gaze sitting with a clutch of Italian journalists, trying to come up with the name of a coach he'd had for a few games years ago in Italy.

"Bravo!" he finally shouted when one of them did, and "Grazie, grazie!" when the interview ended.

I'll remember Edwards, the private person who learned to be more open, talking about how she sat on the court alone after winning her fourth gold medal.

"I know I was born to play basketball," she said.

Goodonya, mates.

Wish you didn't have to go.

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