HAVANA -- Maybe the U.S. basketball team needed a cold shower instead of a warm Jacuzzi.
All the comforts of home weren't enough to reverse a troubling trend for the United States, which lost to Puerto Rico 73-68 yesterday in the Pan American Games tournament.
The U.S. team's much-criticized shuttle diplomacy to a luxury hotel in Miami backfired as it squandered a 10-point lead. Puerto Rico consummated a canny second-half turnaround to advance to the finals.
Like the U.S. women's team, the best the men can hope for is a bronze medal. They play Cuba at 12:30 p.m. Saturday while Puerto Rico plays Mexico for the gold at 3.
The United States will not play in the Pan Am finals for only the second time in the history of the Games; the last time was in 1971. The U.S. squad's record of mediocrity now extends to losses in the past five major international competitions: the 1987 and 1991 Pan Am Games, the 1988 Olympics, and the 1990 Goodwill Games and world championships.
The team pulled out all the stops to try to strike gold, scheduling practice games against foreign teams and treating the team to ** two stays at Coconut Grove's luxurious Mayfair House and U.S. cuisine between games in Cuba.
"The media thinks we're gods in every sport," said U.S. center Christian Laettner. "That's obviously not the case. People back in the States don't know how good the rest of the world is."
But the basketball community knows how good Puerto Rico is. The collection of experienced European league, Continental -Z Basketball Association, Puerto Rican amateur league and former NCAA and NAIA players relies on impeccable teamwork. Jose Ortiz (13 points), Ramon Rivas (eight rebounds) and Edgar Leon (16 points) kept the smaller U.S. front line off balance with the type of physical play international rules allow. Sharpshooter Jerome Mincy led all scorers with 22 points.
"We're just a bunch of guys who never made it in the big leagues," said Rivas, who plays in Spain along with three of his teammates. "It means a lot to beat the guys who will be in the
With starting guard Jimmy Jackson out with a stress fracture in his left foot, the United States never got its fastbreak going. Maryland's Walt Williams led the team with 16 points, Laettner had 14 points and 11 rebounds, and Wisconsin-Green Bay guard Anthony Bennett added eight points and six assists.
The United States led 37-29 at halftime and took a 10-point lead on a Bennett jumper early in the second half.
Then Puerto Rico went to work, spreading its offense, pounding the ball inside and taking a 57-55 lead on Edwin Pellot's three-pointer with eight minutes left.
The United States had chances to regain the lead but came up empty on four straight possessions. Grant Hill's sloppy pass was intercepted by Pellot, Williams lost the ball trying to dribble between his legs, Williams stepped out of bounds after a rebound, and Laettner fouled Leon on an offensive rebound. Leon hit both ends of a one-and-one to put Puerto Rico up 69-64 with 2:56 left.
A large contingent of Puerto Rican fans -- including a trumpet player -- started celebrating, as did most of the pro-Puerto Rico crowd of 15,000. But when Terry Dehere stole an inbounds pass and scored with less than a minute to cut the deficit to three, there was an instant of panic. Puerto Rico secured the victory with two free throws down the stretch.
"We used poor judgment on shot selection," U.S. coach Gene Keady said. "They know how to do the shoving and pushing. That's not what I call cheating; it's just a matter of international experience. It's a compliment, not an excuse."
Puerto Rico coach Raymond Dalmau said his team was the logical favorite since Ortiz (formerly of the Utah Jazz) and Rivas (an ex-Boston Celtic) had NBA experience and his players were an average of five years older than the U.S. players.
"The U.S. just got out of its offense and started playing one-on-one," Dalmau said. "In this type of competition, you can't do that unless you're Kenny Anderson."
While the U.S. players said they had only four weeks together before the Pan Ams, Dalmau said, his players practiced for barely a week. Ortiz and James Carter didn't arrive in Cuba until after the first game.
"I can never get these guys together for even 10 practices in a row," Dalmau said. "But they've played enough together to know my system. If the U.S. wants to regain supremacy, it's going to have to send pros; it can't keep sending 22-year-olds to play 26-year-olds."
Keady said he's prepared for criticism.
"I knew it was a losing cause all the way if we didn't win the gold," he said.
Laettner said North Carolina and Big Ten teams were just as physical as Puerto Rico. It was lack of experience that hurt the United States, he said. That won't be the case at the 1992 Olympics, when the United States sends a team of pros. Keady said it's unlikely that U.S. pros would ever agree to play in the Pan Ams, though.
"People back home will just make more excuses and say send in Jordan and Johnson and 30-year-old guys," he said. "Let them come here and kill everybody if that's what they want."
In contrast, Puerto Rico guard Carter said fans in Puerto Rico "will be going crazy."
"At halftime, we said, 'We're only down by eight even though we played poorly,' " said Carter, who grew up in New York and now plays in Puerto Rico's amateur league, which hopes to convert to a pro league next year. "They didn't have great shooters, so we had to limit them to one shot and get the rebound."
The Puerto Ricans weren't the only happy spectators. The Bahamian coach was dancing in the aisles. His team was defeated 116-58 by the United States.