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ATHENS 2004 | Bill Plaschke

It's Getting Uglier for Americans

August 27, 2004|Bill Plaschke

ATHENS — From adored to abhorred, from Magic to cursed, from the darlings of Barcelona to the scourge of all Spain, the U.S. men's basketball team continued its popularity freefall Thursday with a bounce of outright nastiness.

They won a game, but lost more friends, and at this rate may be seeking entry into the gold-medal protection program.

"We don't have any relief," said Stephon Marbury, shaking his head, his eyes awfully wide for someone who plays in New York.

After behaving with class and restraint in beating powerful Spain in an Olympic quarterfinal match, 102-94, the Americans were pounded.

First, by the fans, who booed and whistled and jeered, pointing at the American bench at game's end and chanting a Spanish four-word expletive.

Second, by the Spanish coach, Maria Pesquera, who nearly came to blows with Larry Brown after a shouting match with the U.S. coach about a late timeout.

Finally, by Spanish and NBA star Pau Gasol, who said what seemingly many here are thinking.

"There is an image issue," he said of the American team. "It's about the image they show ... how they act ... how they are perceived as players. Everybody wants to kick them out of the tournament."

Old feelings apparently die harder than an Allen Iverson dribble, and although the U.S. team has been on its best behavior, nobody here is buying it.

The fans smell weakness. The opponents sense vulnerability. After bowing to America's superiority for nearly 70 years, the basketball folks here have spent the last two weeks giddily planning a funeral and altering reality.

The Americans have become the gritty Europeans.

And the Europeans have become the ugly Americans.

"It's all changing," Marbury said.

It came to a head -- or, rather, two heads -- after Thursday's game when Pesquera confronted Brown while they were leaving the court, the two men shouting and pointing and finally being separated.

Pesquera was furious that Brown had called a timeout with 23 seconds remaining and the U.S. leading by 11 points.

Brown claimed he had called the timeout earlier, when the margin was eight points, and then couldn't rescind it when play was finally stopped.

After the two men were separated, they met again later at a news conference filled with such vitriol, translator Ken McLaughlin made the sign of the cross before repeating Pesquera's words in English.

"I had -- and I stress the word 'had' -- a lot of respect for Larry Brown," Pesquera said. "When you do something wrong, you can't always say you're sorry."

Pesquera added, "A [coach] who is up there among the best, like Dean Smith, would never have done that."

Brown tried to explain himself during the news conference, only to have Pesquera laugh and shake his head during the explanation.

Of the timeout, Brown said, "I tried to wave it off, but they wouldn't let me."

Of their on-court argument, he said he'd apologized, "but it was like arguing with my son, sometimes he doesn't let you explain. I tried to explain and he didn't want to hear it. He kept saying something about the NBA. I said I would never try to embarrass anybody."

In the end, the only ones embarrassed were the Spaniards, who were outplayed, out-coached and outclassed, and then joined all the other losers in these Olympics who have whined.

Pesquera needed to explain how Gasol could have scored 25 points in the first three quarters, then touched the ball for only three shots in the fourth. He needed to explain how his zone defense had not adjusted enough to stop Marbury's U.S.-record six three-point baskets.

It was more about questionable coaching than a questionable timeout, for which Brown could be forgiven, given his penchant for constant teaching and his team's habit of blowing leads.

Of course, what it's really about is perception, and this U.S. team is going to be paying for past sins until it loses, leaves town or both.

Pesquera said the U.S. fouled too much. He said Iverson walked on every dribble. He said his team was jobbed.

"It was said that the public supports the weaker team," he said. "I think today the public supported the stronger team."

The one that lost by eight points?

Said Gasol: "It's just the details, the little things they do, that bother people."

This is the same Memphis Grizzly who spent the game flopping on the court after bad calls and posing after a dunk?

Concluded Brown: "Hopefully, I'll learn to handle these situations that are new to me a little better."

A new situation indeed, these American basketball players understated and under siege, this who-would-have-dreamed team.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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