PORTLAND, Ore. -- The foul shot bounced high off the rim, then fell improbably through the net. Delighted with his good fortune, Argentina's Marcelo Milanesio turned to Earvin Johnson. "That's Magic, huh?" he said, grinning broadly and extending his hand for Johnson to give him five.
All night, it went on like this. Milanesio began asking Johnson for his white "USA" jersey shortly after the opening tap. Later, he tried posting up Johnson, and signaled to the Argentina bench for someone -- anyone -- to snap a picture.
It wasn't just Milanesio. It was the entire Argentina team. At halftime, the players begged the U.S. Olympians to pose for more photos -- the pre-game group shot apparently wasn't enough. Who cared that they trailed 68-37? Who cared that they'd lose 128-87?
"We thought it was kind of weird," Charles Barkley said. "I was like, 'Man, y'all are down by 30 points. Y'all should hate us.' If I'm down by 30 points, I'm going to try to fight the other team. I ain't going to be taking pictures of them."
Relax, Charles, relax. It would be nice if the United States could assemble a Dream Team of presidential candidates or auto manufacturers, but all we've got is this group of millionaire basketball players. For once, the rest of the world doesn't want to protest. It just wants to join the fun.
"It gave me great happiness to play against these monsters," Argentina forward Hernan Montenegro said (something obviously got lost in the translation). "I think we fulfilled 11 dreams in one night, to be able to play against the best players in the world.
"This is an unforgettable experience. We are not accustomed to this kind of night, this kind of crowd, this kind of arena [the Portland Memorial Coliseum]. This is the best night of our lives, at least of our basketball careers."
The U.S. players were taken aback by all the adulation at the start of the Tournament of the Americas, but they're beginning to appreciate their impact around the world. This goes beyond the Olympics, for which they qualified last night. This is an event that literally spans the globe.
"At halftime, I must have had my picture taken with their whole team," Johnson said. "You never know how popular you are. You never know how you are perceived in other countries. Now you're getting that. It's like the ultimate respect.
"They were so excited. It's great. This is something they'll take home. It's got to be unbelievable for them. That's the one thing people don't understand when they say we shouldn't be here. That's the one thing the college guys could never do, that we're doing for basketball worldwide."
So, while it's entirely reasonable to question the propriety of the U.S. team winning by such large margins, it's more important to keep the greater perspective in mind. Heck, Argentina tanked last night's game anyway, looking ahead to its quarterfinal today against Puerto Rico.
The winner gets a rematch with the Dream Team in tomorrow's semis, and maybe then Argentina would try harder. "They started out running out of the way, letting us dunk," Michael Jordan said, incredulous. "When we dunked, they were cheering."
Jordan described the game as "a little too nice," and Johnson couldn't believe it when the Argentina players kept asking him to judge their skills. "They always looked for approval, like on a good shot," he recalled, laughing. "I'd say, 'Good one.' "
Milanesio, of course, was the player most beside himself. He dribbled through his legs and drove right past Jordan at one point, drawing a foul. Moments later, he returned to the bench and exchanged high fives with his teammates in celebration.
"That guy was on me from before we started the game," Johnson said. "He came up to me and said, 'I've got to have your jersey, I've got to have your jersey.' I was trying to explain. He kept asking throughout the game: 'The jersey, the jersey.' "
Milanesio was dismayed afterward that he could not locate the cap and T-shirt Johnson presented him in the pre-game exchange of gifts, speaking of them reverentially as "the ones he had touched." He claimed Johnson indeed promised him his jersey. "I want to frame it," he said.
All night, it went on. Milanesio's teammate, Luis Villar, sat in the interview area with the USA cap on his sweaty head and the T-shirt over his jersey. Suddenly the Dream Team appeared, heading toward its bus. End of interviews. Out to the halls. More pictures.