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Unquestioned Leader No More

Easy answers are elusive after stunning U.S. basketball loss but today's matchup with Greece could offer first one.

August 17, 2004|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Carmelo Anthony's cell phone kept ringing Sunday and on into Monday. All the calls were from the United States. All the questions were the same: What happened?

What happened indeed? How did the U.S. men's basketball team lose its Olympic opener Sunday to Puerto Rico, not on anybody's list of international basketball powerhouses.

"Everybody was asking that," Anthony said.

Coach Larry Brown and his players know they must come up with some answers by tonight when they return to Helliniko Indoor Arena to face Greece, a team that won its Olympic opener, 76-54, over Australia. Greece was led in scoring by Lazaros Papadopoulos (21 points), who declared himself available for the NBA draft in 2002 but was not selected.

Carlos Boozer takes heart from the similarity between the loss to Puerto Rico and a 17-point loss to Italy on an exhibition tour before the Olympics.

"We came right back and played the home team, Germany," Boozer said. "The fans were against us, the refs were against us, and we had to move forward and play through that. We just worked our tails off and won that game. That's what the situation will be like [today]."

In terms of similar situations, maybe Brown should talk to John Thompson, the former Georgetown coach who led the last U.S. basketball team to fall short of Olympic gold. The year was 1988, the place was Seoul and the result was an 82-76 loss to the old Soviet Union in the semifinals.

That was before the Dream Team concept, when the roster was filled with college players, when a coach didn't have to deal with players whose postseason stretched into summer.

"I don't think it's that much of an upset," Thompson said of Sunday's loss. "It takes time to teach team defensive concepts the way Larry wants to play.... He didn't have enough time to influence the personality of the team.... Larry has been cheated."

Don't trying telling Thompson a team of superstars should dominate regardless of the circumstances.

"Forget the talent," he said. "There are intangible things. Those boys [Puerto Rico] ... were capable of playing basketball. I think it's unfair when people portray it as if the [U.S.] guys aren't hustling, that the guys aren't trying. That's us going through denial of the fact that [other Olympic teams] have reached the point that they have. It's a reality check we haven't accepted, one that's been going on for a long time."

So what's Brown's solution?

"I watched film [after the game], got up early, watched more film," he said. "All you can do as a coaching staff is try to show them the way and show them what we need to do and, hopefully, enough guys on the team care."

Though Thompson may see problems with forming a pro team overnight, he bristles at the idea of returning to a college roster such as he had.

"Go back to college?" Thompson said. "Are they stupid? What college players are going to be better than [Tim] Duncan or Allen [Iverson]? Or LeBron James. Or Carmelo Anthony. Carmelo was the best player in college two years ago. The best college players are in the pros. So what the heck are they talking about? The pro players need to be there."


Times staff writer J.A. Adande contributed to this report.

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