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ATHENS 2004 | Bill Plaschke

Team USA? No, Just a Bunch of NBA Players

August 28, 2004|Bill Plaschke

ATHENS — The chant fell from the rafters like a warm, thawing rain.

"Ole! Ole! Ole!"

Down on the floor, the bull of world basketball was staggered and bleeding, its hecklers skipping circles around it, 70 years of fear vanished in a moment of morality.

It's over. Exchange that dark jersey for a bright tank top. Trade in "Hoosiers" for "Evita." Don't be like Mike, be like Manu.

It's over. America can no longer claim it plays the best basketball in the world, for the first time since the game was invented 103 years ago, back when the baskets were peach and the players still passed.

The dominance ended Friday when a team with 11 NBA players lost to a team with two, when a dozen millionaires lost to guys with string headbands and floppy socks, when Melo froze over.

The gym rats whipped off their shirts and danced on the scorer's table amid chants and flag waving. The millionaires untucked their shirts and trudged to the locker room amid whistles and jeers.

But don't cry for us, Argentina.

Knocking off the U.S. in the Olympic semifinals, 89-81, was the best thing that could have happened to our misguided basketball system.

You know what they say. Only through embarrassment can one learn empathy, and only through humiliation can one learn the half-court offense.

We know how it looks now, years of self promotion and fundamental neglect thwacked for two hours like basketball cards in a bike spoke.

We know how it sounds now, the squeak of constantly moving shoes and the slap of consistent passes, drowning out the rattle of a country that only wants to dunk.

We know how it feels now, watching a team add a needless exclamation point with a last-second posturing dunk, Scola applying the facial to Richard Jefferson just before the final buzzer.

"International players have lost respect for the NBA," said Pepe Sanchez, a former NBA journeymen. "They used to come in and take pictures of them. Now we've learned we're just as good."

The only pictures worth taking here were of Argentina's 11 mostly open three-pointers sank against defensive mistakes, against Americans who need Gene Hackman to teach them how to defend the pick-and-roll, NBA guys who could not even stop one of their own, a San Antonio sixth man named Manu Ginobili.

It's not that America still doesn't have the best players. It had probably a dozen of the best 20 players in this tournament.

It's just that America has lost all sight of team, from the high school kid with his own website to the AAU coach with the shoe contract to those embarrassing Lakers.

We don't think team. We don't act team. And when it came time to choose a group to represent us in the most important basketball tournament in the world, the selection committee didn't pick team and the candidates didn't care about team.

"We can't put together a team idly," said Larry Brown, the U.S. coach. "We've got to think about the people we put on a team, about the people we need."

In other words, the next time the Americans are trailing Argentina by 13 points entering the fourth quarter, it would help if we had the personnel to take more than two three-point attempts the entire final 10 minutes.

If you care about team, you select role players. If kids grow up caring about team, your selections agree to show up, unlike seven of the nine original American selections who declined to play.

And if your top priority is team, you allow a coach to remain for more than one Olympic cycle ... and that coach is not Larry Brown.

From the beginning, when he realized that one month was not enough to prepare for teams that had been together for four years, the NBA's championship coach separated himself from this mess by talking about not having the right players.

It got so bad that David Stern, NBA commissioner, showed up at halftime Friday to publicly scold him.

"Lots of people would like to have this team," Stern said, later adding, "This whining and carping is not fair."

Losing more Olympic games in two weeks than in the previous 68 years?

Blame the basketball culture for not producing more players who would rather make floor burns than fashion statements.

Blame the USA Basketball system for not finding enough of those guys and figuring out a way to keep them together longer.

Blame Brown for not adjusting enough to the international game.

Blame everything but the effort. The bull of world basketball may have died an ugly death, but it did so with a dignity distinctly lacking in its whining, flopping, preening conquerors.

These players showed up when others would not. They attempted to play a game for which they were not prepared. They made no excuses.

Even in the defeat, they even had the nerve to say, well, listen.

"It's still an honor to come over here and represent your country," Allen Iverson said. "It is something you should cherish, something I will cherish."

Honor in the effort. Shame in the system.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. For more Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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