Far from Dream Team, U.S. basketball squad faces nightmare scenario

With experience lacking, gold hardly a sure shot

Athens Olympics

3 Days To Go

Aug. 13 - 29

August 10, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The headline in the newspaper where the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team was training recently said it all: "America the Beatable" read the story in The Florida Times-Union of Jacksonville.

How prescient.

That was before the United States lost an exhibition game for the first time ever in international competition, an embarrassing double-digit defeat to Italy on Aug. 3 in Cologne, Germany.

That was before the Americans barely scraped by Germany - a team that had failed to qualify for this month's Summer Games in Athens, Greece - on a last-second shot by Allen Iverson the next day.

Less than a week before his team's opening-round game against Puerto Rico, U.S. coach Larry Brown is facing the reality that he is coaching a team of dreamers rather than another Dream Team.

Even with an impressive 18-point win over gold-medal contender Serbia-Montenegro on Friday and a 12-point victory against Turkey on Sunday, Brown could be facing the toughest assignment of a career that includes a coaching stint with the lowly Los Angeles Clippers.

"This is definitely a challenge," said Brown, 63, the first former Olympic basketball player to coach the U.S. men's team. "This is definitely not going to be a walk in the park. We've got kids who are truly learning how to play on the fly right now."

With all but three players from last year's team that qualified in Puerto Rico backing out because of injury and fatigue from the NBA season, as well as concerns over security in Greece, this group has loads of talent but is lacking in international experience.

All but co-captains Iverson and Tim Duncan, as well as Richard Jefferson, are essentially second - or third - choices. Even one of the late additions acknowledged Brown might be the key figure in the U.S. hopes of winning a gold medal.

"The guys that we got on this team are all one-on-one players," said Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony, the former Towson Catholic star. "Coach Brown will mold us into a team in two weeks, and that goes to show you that he's one of the greatest coaches ever."

Said Duncan, who at 28 is the second-oldest player on the team behind Iverson, 29: "His philosophy is to make a team out of a bunch of individuals. That's the best way to play the game, whether it be international or anywhere else."

World plays catch-up

The other part of the equation is this: Since barely surviving in the 2000 Sydney Olympics - the U.S. team narrowly escaped defeat in the semifinals against Lithuania and was less than impressive in the gold-medal win over France, the Americans have watched the world catch up and, perhaps, pass them by.

Evidence of that came two years ago at the world championships in Indianapolis, where the United States saw its 58-game winning streak end against Argentina, then lost to Yugoslavia (now Serbia-Montenegro) and Spain to finish sixth.

"It was a disgrace," Anthony said. "We've got to redeem ourselves. There's no way a U.S. team should come in, what, eighth? Sixth? You're supposed to be the best players in the world. But at the same time, we've got to prove it."

Brown is aware of the pressure he and his players are faced with - one that usually comes with playing not to lose rather than playing to win.

"I think any time you represent the United States in a basketball competition, the expectations are very high. You're supposed to win," Brown said. "If we play the right way and if guys sacrifice like I feel they will, we'll be pretty good."

Unlike the crowds at the past three Olympics, those in Athens could be more vocal in anti-U.S. sentiment given the political atmosphere and tensions in that part of the world.

"We know how hostile it's going to be when we get over there," Iverson said. "Everyone is going to be against the U.S. But we know we've got a whole country at home - Laker fans, Celtic fans - that's going to be on our side."

Brown tried to downplay the political ramifications of these Games, comparing the scene more to a college team going on the road against a conference rival.

"I would anticipate that it's going to be like playing in Chapel Hill if you're Duke, or Missouri going to Kansas," Brown said. "It's going to be every bit like that. I was over in Greece before, and I know they love NBA basketball. They're going to be familiar with our guys. But I think they're going to be supportive of the underdog."

The performance during the past two international competitions will certainly play into what happens in Athens. Not only will the Americans have the pressure of living up to the role of favorites, but also most of those facing the U.S. squad now believe they have a legitimate chance of winning.

"Nobody is scared of us anymore," Anthony said. "The '92 Dream Team, everybody was in awe of [Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson] and [Michael] Jordan. Now they want to get on the court with us. They want to play against A.I. [Iverson]. They want to try to get out there and beat us up."

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