ATHENS - The American men are not going to win gold in basketball.
They might not even win a medal.
The game was concocted by a physical education instructor in Massachusetts and dominated by the United States at the Olympics for most of the 20th century. The gold medal is headed overseas a third time, but more pertinent, this is the first instance in which the Americans fell short at the Olympics with professionals.
Argentina led the United States by as many as 16 points and won their semifinal last night, 89-81. The Americans will play today for the bronze medal against Lithuania, which lost the other semifinal to Italy.
The city game is big in Buenos Aires, Rome and Kaunas, the hometown of Sarunas Jasikevicius, a former University of Maryland player who will try to help Lithuania beat the United States for the second time in eight days.
The Americans had a 108-2 record in Olympic basketball before this team matched the three losses the United States had at the 2002 world championships. That pratfall led to a show of force at an Olympic qualifying tournament, but Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and Richard Jefferson were the only holdovers for Athens.
Iverson called out the no-shows.
"I would advise anybody selected," Iverson said, "to take this honor and cherish it."
Established pro stars such as Mike Bibby, Jason Kidd and Tracy McGrady backed out of the Games. They followed the lead of surefire Hall of Famers Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant, as the National Basketball Association's best stayed away for reasons that ranged from a court trial to indifference.
"To say if X were here or Y were here, that doesn't work," said David Stern, the NBA's commissioner. "I make no apologies for this team. The rest of the world is catching up."
Carmelo Anthony, who was playing at Towson Catholic High School three years ago, was the last man added to a combustible mix that didn't have the cohesion of the other teams in the medal round and didn't have the talent to be called a Dream Team, like its three predecessors.
When the Americans lost to the Soviet Union in 1972, they blamed an Olympic bureaucrat who interfered with the officials. After the Soviets beat them fair and square in 1988, the Olympics were opened to professionals, and the United States didn't have to rely on collegians.
Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were on the American team in 1992. Four years ago, some of the NBA's best barely got by Lithuania in the semifinals.
"A lot of fans in America think it's 1992," said Gregg Popovich, a U.S. assistant coach. "It bothers me that these guys are going to be criticized because they didn't win gold. They worked to counteract the teamwork and all the years of playing together that the other teams have."
Popovich assisted Larry Brown, who became the first coach with NCAA and NBA titles two months ago but couldn't complete a hat trick with Olympic gold.
Brown congratulated the Argentines, then complained about the officiating that put Duncan in foul trouble, limiting him to less than 20 minutes of playing time. Iverson got in what could be considered a dig at Brown, his foil when the two were paired with the Philadelphia 76ers.
"It's obvious that they're a great-coached team," Iverson said of Argentina. "They execute their offense perfectly."
Popovich coaches a San Antonio Spurs team that includes Duncan and Argentina's Manu Ginobili, who crammed nine of his game-high 29 points into the first three minutes of the second half, when Argentina scored 10 straight to take a 56-40 lead.
At the 2002 world championships, a nation better known for producing soccer legend Diego Maradona became the first to beat a U.S. team that had NBA players. The Argentines are deep, and Ginobili and point guard Pepe Sanchez were on the bench when the second five stretched the lead to nine points in the second quarter.
"They're obviously more athletic," Sanchez said of the Americans. "They've got great players, but we're a little smarter on how to play the game and fundamentals."
Americans trailed Argentines cutting to the basket and couldn't combat the moving screens that are a part of the international game.
"It's been a month now," said Sanchez. "They should have adapted."
Stern said he "worried about America rooting against this team," and a crowd of 14,500 was decidedly in Argentina's corner. When Luis Alberto Scola dunked over Jefferson at the end, head coach Ruben Magnano hugged his assistant and remembered when he played against the first Dream Team in 1992.
"We've been gestating this dream for a long time," Magnano said. "We were very aware that [the Americans] had difficulties. That's not our problem. America is the cradle of basketball. This does not take away that they have the best basketball in the world."