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The Cradle of Basketball Gets Rocked at Olympics

August 28, 2004|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — On a night that international basketball experts had seen coming and most Americans had not, the U.S. men's team was knocked out of the running for an Olympic gold medal here Friday.

The United States was not only beaten by Argentina, 89-81, but outplayed so thoroughly that the game is likely to serve as a focal point for those who believe the rest of the world has caught up in basketball.

This was only the third defeat for the U.S. in the medal round since the sport was introduced to the Olympics in 1936 in Berlin. And it was the most decisive.

The United States lost the infamous 1972 Munich final to the Soviet Union when an official put three seconds back on the clock after the Americans had seemingly won. The Soviets then threw a full-court pass and sank a winning layup. In 1988 at Seoul, the Americans, still fielding a team of college stars, lost again to the Soviets, 82-76, in a semifinal and ended up with a bronze medal.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 29, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Olympic soccer -- An article in Saturday's Section A about the U.S. men's basketball team's loss to Argentina contained a reference to the gold medal game in men's soccer, reporting that Argentina was going to play Portugal. Argentina defeated Paraguay for the gold medal Saturday.

But in 1992, the NBA agreed to send pro players to the Olympics, and the resulting all-star team including Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson -- quickly and aptly named the Dream Team -- be- gan a gold-medal domination that did not end until Friday night.

In all, the men's basketball team had won 12 of the 14 gold medals it competed for -- the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow -- and had a 109-2 record in the Olympics coming into Athens.

"America is the cradle of basketball. Today, maybe we were lucky," Argentina's stunned-looking coach, Ruben Pablo Magnano, said after the game. "They have the best basketball players in the world. Today, we realized, nothing is impossible."

Two of his star players, Manu Ginobili, who is also a star guard for the San Antonio Spurs, and Juan Ignacio "Pepe" Sanchez, who played for Temple and had short stints with three NBA teams, were less dazzled.

Said Ginobili, who scored 29 points -- nine of them in a 13-2 run that opened the second half and effectively sealed the victory: "The bigger deal is getting to the gold medal game. We were here to win. We knew what we had to do, and how to do it."

Added Sanchez, the playmaker with seven assists: "We had a good plan. We aren't afraid to play the United States. In Europe, we know how to play basketball. We know the right way."

Argentina's way included crisp passing and a constantly moving offense that had the U.S. defense a step behind, reaching and grabbing all night.

Tim Duncan, Ginobili's teammate at San Antonio, fouled out for the U.S. with five minutes left in the fourth quarter while setting a lazy, moving screen. The left-handed-shooting Ginobili made five of seven shots from two-point range and four of six from behind the three-point arc. Argentina, which had a 43-38 halftime lead, shot 57%, the U.S. 44%. Laker-to-be Lamar Odom had 14 points and eight rebounds.

Argentina's Luis Alberto Scola triggered a wild celebration with a running dunk with four seconds left. Players and coaches lifted each other in the air in hugs and celebration. Several players sank to their knees on the court and held their heads in the hands in disbelief. Soon, samba music was playing and the team was dancing at midcourt, while blue and white Argentina flags swayed from the floor to the rafters.

"We fought as hard as we could," Allen Iverson said. "We couldn't get it done for whatever reason. They were a better team than us."

Argentina, which has never won a medal in basketball and has not won gold in any sport since 1952, will play Italy in today's championship game. Argentina also has reached the gold-medal game in men's soccer, where it will face Portugal.

The United States will face Lithuania in the bronze-medal game today. Lithuania defeated the U.S. in the preliminary rounds but lost Friday night to Italy in the other semifinal, 100-91.

The Americans also lost to Puerto Rico in the preliminary rounds last week, and while neither loss would have mattered greatly had they gone on to win the gold medal, both set off alarms for U.S. basketball fans. In fact, the person setting off most of those early alarms, even before the Puerto Rico loss, was U.S. Coach Larry Brown.

Brown, who led the Detroit Pistons to an upset of the Lakers in the NBA Finals in June, had guided a U.S. national team to a 10-0 record and the championship last summer in an Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico. In that tournament, the U.S. beat virtually the same team it lost to Friday night.

But only Duncan, Iverson and Richard Jefferson remain from last year's team. As the Athens Games got closer, and rumors of security fears surfaced, players started withdrawing. Some were injured, others just didn't want to go.

Missing from the team that Brown had in Puerto Rico were Vince Carter, Jermaine O'Neal, Ray Allen, Tracy McGrady, Mike Bibby, Elton Brand, Kenyon Martin, Nick Collison and Jason Kidd. There was a final selection process for the Olympics, so not all might have been selected again.

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