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Greece Takes Air Out of U.S. Basketball

Americans fall, 101-95, in semifinals of world championships but their conduct gains respect.

September 02, 2006|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

SAITAMA, Japan — This was the U.S. men's basketball team that was supposed to deliver redemption. Erase the embarrassments of Indianapolis and Athens. Remind the world that basketball is America's game.

Now redemption is on hold, at least until the next marquee international tournament at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

The Americans were chased from a big tournament again on Friday, falling heavily in the FIBA World Championship tournament semifinals to a Greek team that was supposed to be built around defense but instead shot the lights out to run up a 101-95 victory. In the crunch, a collection of NBA stars couldn't handle players whose names they couldn't pronounce and could identify only by number.

"To lose any game is a shock to us," Carmelo Anthony said. "We came in with the mentality to win the game and the gold medal."

It wasn't supposed to end this way, this early, this time. Not if you listened to the players talking about the need to play seamless team basketball rather than emphasizing individual talent. Not if you watched the eyes of USA Basketball Managing Director Jerry Colangelo blaze as he described the "mission" to restore respect for USA Basketball abroad.

The buzzards of talk radio will now circle, looking to dine on Colangelo and Coach Mike Krzyzewski. They'll scream, where were the shooters? (All those missed threes!) Where was Shaquille O'Neal? More veterans next time, some will demand. Or send only college kids. Or give the team to Phil Jackson.

They will miss the point.

This team might not have settled past scores on the court, but their performance and conduct in Japan restored much else to the soul of USA Basketball. Sportsmanship. Playing with heart. A knowledge that the road to gold runs through team play, not individual flashes of talent.

Old-fashioned virtues that mark the first step in USA Basketball's self-help program to expunge the image of the Ugly American Basketball Player.

The change was evident in the way the players talked after the game of the need to regroup and play with pride for the bronze medal against Argentina (a game scheduled for today at 3:30 a.m. PDT) and how they were determined to learn their Greek lesson and apply it in preparation for Beijing, for which they would have automatically qualified if they had won in Japan. Now they will have to qualify in the FIBA Americas tournament in Venezuela.

These American athletes made clear they knew that playing under the Team USA brand carries more responsibility than a commercial logo.

"People here have seen that we're conducting ourselves as good people, good citizens," said Elton Brand, who has always answered his country's call to play international ball. "We're not scowling, as one Olympic team was known for. There's no troublemaker on the team.

"There's so many things going on in the States -- the war, Katrina -- so many people not liking the United States around the world. We wanted to give our people something to root for. We wanted to give the American people something upbeat."

Some fans will still snipe because of the failure to win it all. But players from other countries here talked of a sea change in American on-court attitudes. The Americans brought a respect for the opposition that was missing from previous U.S. teams.

Brand is no tourist to international ball -- he has been playing these tournaments since the 1990s -- and says this team is the first to take the international game seriously.

"On those other teams, we all knew the top players like Dirk Nowitzki, but we didn't respect the teams over here," he said before Friday's loss. "We didn't respect the tournaments. Guys didn't really care that much.

"But we have to realize that [to] these other teams, this is like the NBA Finals to them. This is their championship. They go home and hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets when they win the gold.

"If we win, people who know basketball will be happy. But there won't be any parades for us."

That distinction underscores the singularity of the American sports culture. While yearning for its national teams to win international glory, this is still a country that celebrates displays of individual athleticism.

Stuffing the ball on a fastbreak is how you get on "SportsCenter." The riches flow from there. But this American basketball team seemed to understand -- even if its instincts occasionally failed them in execution -- that athleticism is no longer enough to win in a sport where the world has caught up.

Colangelo said that's why he set out to build a truly national team, one that will stay together instead of disbanding after every tournament. These players have signed on through Beijing. The loss in Japan can go into the experience column.

"It's not like this is the end of the world for us," a dejected Anthony said after the loss. "We came into this thing together. You win together. You lose together. So that's the way we're going to go out."

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bruce.wallace@latimes.com

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