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U.S. Men's Basketball Suffers Stunning Defeat

August 16, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — In a hot, stuffy gym with exposed girders and blue plastic seats, far from the posses and palatial arenas to which its players are accustomed, the U.S. men's Olympic basketball team lost its claim to international supremacy with a 92-73 loss Sunday to Puerto Rico.

Its hold had been slipping since 1992, when the Barcelona "Dream Team" of National Basketball Assn. superstars breezed past opponents who later begged for their autographs. Other NBA standouts played in Atlanta and Sydney, but by then, the NBA's global marketing reach had put basketball courts on every continent and allowed players throughout the world to dream about beating their American idols -- and learn the skills to make those dreams reality.

For the U.S. team Sunday, though it remains in the tournament with a chance for a gold medal, the harsh reality was its first defeat in the 25 Olympic contests in which NBA players have participated. Before that, the U.S. team's only two losses in the Olympics came against the Soviet Union -- in the controversial gold medal game at Munich in 1972 and a semifinal game at Seoul in 1988. Never before had the margin of defeat been more than six.

In front of a crowd at the Helliniko Indoor Arena that swelled from respectable to standing-room-only by the final buzzer, the U.S. was routed by a team it had defeated by 25 points in a July 31 exhibition with three of its top players on the bench.

Puerto Rico made 56% of its shots (31 for 55), including eight of 16 from three-point range; the U.S. made merely 35% (26 for 75) and only three of 24 three-point attempts. The U.S. interior defense was porous and its scorers never found any rhythm against Puerto Rico's zone defense.

The loss marked the end of an era that will not be repeated.

"It means a lot, playing against these guys," said Jose Ortiz, Puerto Rico's 40-year-old center. "Sometimes you think they can't be beaten."

Said U.S. forward Lamar Odom, who was acquired by the Lakers last month in a trade with Miami: "The best athletes lose. From Muhammad Ali to the New York Yankees to Mike Tyson to the L.A. Lakers. Michael Jordan lost big games. It happens. You just try to move on and hope that it doesn't happen again."

The first significant crack in the U.S. facade appeared at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, when Lithuania nearly staged a semifinal upset and France made a good run before the U.S. won its third consecutive gold medal. The U.S. team's sixth-place finish at the 2002 World Championships was another hint that the world was catching up, but that was widely attributed to the absence of many NBA players who didn't want to give up their summer vacations to play in the tournament.

Although a U.S. loss at these Games seemed inevitable, that it happened with so little resistance seemed to stun everyone but U.S. Coach Larry Brown.

"I'm not mystified. The first day we got with this group I knew what was in store, basically," he said. "I'm angry because the mentality of this team has been like this from Day One. Now, we've got to coach them better and find out if we're truly ready to become a team."

The last U.S. lead, 11-10, came with 3 minutes 58 seconds left in the first of the four 10-minute quarters played in the international game. Brown's team scored only seven points in the second quarter and twice trailed by 22 points, fueling rhythmic chants of "Puer-to Ri-co!" from exuberant, flag-waving fans.

The U.S. players were jeered when they left the court at halftime trailing, 49-27, and not even a late surge that brought them within nine points with 5:01 left to play could give much oomph to the few "USA" chants that broke out.

Too many turnovers -- 22 -- and too few points from outside brought about the U.S. team's downfall.

"They brought a young team, when you compare with previous teams," Ortiz said of the U.S. "And they were playing together for more time, those other teams.... Tonight they didn't play really well. We did a great job offensively and defensively."

Puerto Rico's Carlos Arroyo, who averaged 12.6 points per game for the NBA's Utah Jazz last season, scored a game-high 24 points and had four steals. Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers and Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs led the U.S. with 15 points each. Duncan also had 16 rebounds, 11 off the offensive boards.

"I think they played so much harder than us and better as a team that the result was not a surprise, because that's what usually happens," said Brown, who guided the Detroit Pistons past the Lakers for the NBA title two months ago. Brown knew he faced a situation that would be difficult, if not untenable, in working with a team heavy on potential and light on experience with international basketball and the quirks that set it apart from the college and NBA games, such as aggressive zone defenses and unfamiliar officiating.

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