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It's Almost a Nightmare for U.S. Men

Lithuania's valiant effort proves that the rest of the world is no longer intimidated by NBA stars.

September 30, 2000|RANDY HARVEY

SYDNEY, Australia — I had a dream last night.

The Dream Team lost. The U.S. men's basketball team was leading by two points in the Olympic semifinals, time was running out, Lithuania's Sarunas Jasikevicius shot a three-pointer with Antonio McDyess charging at him, the ball went in, and a delirious crowd of 14,653 at the SuperDome, many wearing their tie-dyed Grateful Dead T-shirts, charged onto the floor and carried the winners off on their shoulders.


I said it was a dream. Here's what really happened Friday night: The U.S. men's basketball team was leading by two points, time was running out, Lithuania's Jasikevicius shot a three-pointer with McDyess charging at him, it was an air ball.

The dream team won, 85-83.

But the Lithuanian kids almost won, and that counts for something, except in their locker room, where they had sat and talked about it at halftime and decided that they could win, that they were going to win.

I don't know where they got that idea. Maybe it was in their capital city, Vilnius, a decade or so ago, watching their fathers and their uncles and their older brothers take to the streets and stare down Soviet tanks.

They turned them back, winning independence for their Baltic republic after 52 years of Soviet oppression.

After seeing something like that, you think these Lithuanian kids were going to be intimidated by Vince Carter, Kevin Garnett, Alonzo Mourning and Jason Kidd?


Well, maybe--a little.

They had lost to the Americans by nine points a few nights before in a preliminary game, and, U.S. Coach Rudy Tomjanovich said, the score could have been closer.

But the difference was that nobody thought the Dream Team was ever in jeopardy that night, not even the Lithuanians.

"I think we had maybe two players who believed in that first game," said Donnie Nelson, a scout, consultant, advisor, assistant coach, head cheerleader--whatever you want to call him--for the Lithuanians ever since they gained their independence.

"Tonight we had nine or 10 players who believed."

Donnie Nelson's real job is as an assistant coach for the Dallas Mavericks, working for his dad, Don Nelson. He was also working for his father at Golden State when he, Donnie, went to Lithuania to sign a magnificent shooting guard by the name of Sarunas Marciulionis.

He came back to California with Marciulionis. (That's where Marciulionis met Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead and gained a sponsor for his national team, but that's another story.)

Nelson also came back with an appreciation for Lithuania, its people, its culture and its history. He has even picked up some of the language over the years.

One of the things he learned was the story of Frank Lubin, the former UCLA star from Glendale who played for the United States in the first gold-medal basketball team in the 1936 Olympics, then went to his ancestral home in Lithuania and taught his people the game.

"They learned it so well that they would send their club teams down to Moscow and beat the teams from the Red Army and Spartak and everyone in the country would celebrate," Nelson said.

"That was the only way they had to strike back against one of the darkest forces in history."

In 1988, the Soviets won the gold medal in basketball, having upset the pre-Dream Team Americans in the semifinals, and posed for a team picture. Afterward, the four Lithuanians on the team posed for their own picture.

In Barcelona four years later, those four players represented an independent Lithuania. In the bronze-medal game, Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis combined for 56 points and the Lithuanians beat the so-called Unified Team of former Soviet republics, including Russia. Now there was a dream.


A victory Friday night would have been more consequential everywhere except Lithuania.

It is what the rest of the world has been waiting for since 1992, three years after professionals had been voted into Olympic basketball.

There is a misconception about that vote, a widely held belief that the United States, smarting from its loss in Seoul, commandeered it in order to resume its domination of the sport. Not so. The United States was one of only 13 countries to vote against it, believing that the NBA players would be so dominant that American fans would be bored and tune out, which is exactly what has happened.

Most of the countries didn't care.

"If you beat the U.S. in an international tournament, there was always an asterisk by it because you knew they didn't send their best players," Nelson said. "This is supposed to be about determining who is the best."

Besides, the rest of the world had caught up to our college players. It was time to take the next step, which the Lithuanians have almost done.

They still didn't win, but the Dream Team's aura--"the wow factor," Nelson called it--is gone.

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