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ATHENS 2004

One U.S. Team Is Forced to Confront Fears Early

The already-jittery men's basketball squad deals with its concerns about security after fatal blasts early this week in Turkey.

August 14, 2004|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Meekness LaCato, mother of Richard Jefferson, was the first to tell the scary news to the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team. Watching morning television in the team's hotel in Istanbul, Turkey, Tuesday, she learned that bombs had exploded at two hotels and a fuel depot a few miles away, killing two and wounding 11.

When the team gathered for breakfast, the players were advised that the danger they had been cautioned about had erupted near their doorstep.

"It was an eye opener," said Lamar Odom, who will join the Lakers after playing for the Olympic squad. "We've got to understand that this is a different part of the world. You may think you're tough because you are from the Bronx or from Brooklyn, but this kind of thing happens every day of the year here. It's been a real education."

Despite some jittery nerves, the U.S. team played Turkey as scheduled on the day of the blasts in a pre-Olympic exhibition and won, 80-68.

"Going out to play helped clear our heads," Odom said.

"Some of the guys were a little scared," said teammate Shawn Marion. "I don't care how tough you are, you are going to be a little tentative."

Added Allen Iverson: "It didn't shake me up. I have put my life in God's hands."

Turkish authorities believe the bombings were carried out by Kurdish separatists, who had no interest in harming the U.S. Olympians.

"It wasn't as scary, once we found out it wasn't aimed at us," Dwyane Wade said.

Now in Athens, the team is surrounded by security personnel. Instead of staying in the Olympic village, the players are on the Queen Mary II in Piraeus Harbor.

"We have so many security people with us, it's like traveling with the president," Marion said. "If somebody wants to get us, they are going to have to come hard, come tough."

When the talk at a pre-Olympic news conference turned to the pressure the players will face on the court, Odom objected.

"There's no pressure on us," he said. "Pressure is a [U.S.] soldier waking up in his bunk in Iraq or Afghanistan, knowing that the guy who slept in the bunk next to him the night before is dead and being shipped home for burial. Pressure is writing a letter home and knowing it might be the last letter you write."

The players felt a little of that type of pressure on a scary morning in Istanbul.

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