Basics all Greek to non-dream team

Men's Basketball

Athens Olympics

August 18, 2004|By Laura Vecsey

ATHENS - After the flag-waving stopped and the eardrum-piercing cheers faded, the team that was supposed to be sad was happy and the coach of the team that won was sad.

Larry Brown knows. The Greeks can bring it.

So did the majority of the 12,000 inside the Helliniko Indoor Arena who had come to see their sporting prowess continue.

Making matters worse, everyone's feeling it, which is why the Greek fans were yelling, "Puerto Rico." If it can dump the Americans, so could Greece.

Fresh off cheering for its national soccer team, which just won the European Cup, the Greeks were eager to sustain their fevered rooting pitch, and what a wonderful bonus: The American NBA stars were in the house.

"It's a good psychology to be in. We believe in ourselves more than we did two months ago," said Athens 2004 volunteer Savantis Nivades.

"We used to be one of the powers in basketball, now with football being good, we are confused," he said.

Confused, because instead of getting trounced by the U.S. team, the Greeks refused to go gently into that raucous night.

By the end, the look in Brown's eyes was the look of love, which is somewhat of a Greek tragedy, considering our current locale. See, sometimes love spawns despondency, a state in which the perfectionist U.S. coach who loves basketball too often dwells.

See, love spawns despondency if that love is unrequited or unattainable.

Ah, the Greek basketball players. Brown sees what they do, how they do it and he could not hide his ardor.

A coach's team, those Greeks. The way they pass. The way they defend. The way they break down a defense, in and out with the ball and then, pop, guy on the perimeter is open. A three-pointer. Or back inside for an uncontested layup.

Maybe, in his mind, he hears a hoops version of Robert Frost: Two paths diverged in the basketball wood. One went to SportsCenter highlight-ville, complete with tomahawk jams and chest thumps. One went back to basics. Dribble, drive, move the ball, shoot.

"We all appreciated the way the Greeks played. It's an appealing game to watch," Brown said, his voice forlorn.

And his team won! If the Greeks can play the United States to within 75-71 with 15 seconds left, needing Lamar Odom to make a crucial stop, there's no telling what Argentina or Spain or Serbia-Montenegro or Lithuania can do.

"I'm not playing for a gold medal. I'm playing one day at a time," Brown said.

Ah, pity the poor American NBA stars who make up the 2004 Olympic squad. The young and the gun-less. It's not their fault high-flying, sneaker-selling street ball is the only credential now required for admission to the NBA. They are millionaires without the requisite skills to match a less athletic opponent who can simply execute the fundamentals of this game.

Ultimately, the game is about creating space and shots, not rim-rocking and camera mugging. These young Americans have the misfortune of showing up in Athens at the wrong time.

Like about 12 years too late.

Fresh off their stunning, planets-are-shifting defeat to Puerto Rico in their Olympic opener Sunday, the U.S. players were sobered enough to not let it happen again.

In holding off Greece, barely, the Americans have fully discovered it's not 1992 anymore. That was the summer that Dream Team sent nine Hall of Fame locks to Barcelona.

Ah, those were the days.

It's humbling, it's stunning, but it's also fascinating to see the NBA and USA Basketball reap what it has sewn.

"Basketball is probably my generation's soccer," Odom said.

"Basketball is watched all over the world. You've got kids 8 and 9 years old practicing. You've got kids 13 and 14 turning pro in some places. In Europe, they've got basketball schools where kids go to class for three or four hours and the rest of the time is in the gym. They put as much work into the game as we do."

Or more work. Or smarter work. Something.

Not even a $78 million contract extension could buy some guys a three-pointer.

That would be Richard Jefferson, whose agent signed for him in absentia. Jefferson is among the better shooters on this U.S. team, but the New Jersey Net contributed exactly zero points on 0-for-7 shooting, aiding and abetting the Americans' stellar stat of the night: 4-for-21 from beyond the arc.

"You watch the NBA. Shooting is a lost art," Brown said. "We accept a lot of bad shots. That's not acceptable to me. We had a chance to bury them, but sometimes I think we're trying to entertain instead of trying to play."

There's no doubt that LeBron James breaking away for a two-handed jam has a certain entertainment value, but it's kind of like junk food. A quick rush.

James' energy off the bench was a key reason the United States stayed one step ahead of Greece, but there is more than a gnawing sensation: Basketball is getting stronger, better, deeper because it's returning to fundamentals, its essence, its roots.

The Greeks play it as if Naismith had nailed his peach basket to the Parthenon, which is why Larry Brown is forlorn. A medal, any medal, is no sure thing.

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