Thursday, August 26
U.S. basketball team has gone from stars to targets
ATHENS, Greece - In a surprise bit of Olympics scheduling Thursday, boxing and basketball nearly were staged at the same time ... at the same venue.
It was all quite unintentional.
The basketball game went smoothly enough, a 102-94 victory for the U.S. men over Spain that put the Americans into Friday's semifinals against Argentina.
The fight - a verbal clash, fortunately - wasn't as elegant. Spain's coach, Mario Pesquera, got in the face of Larry Brown, the U.S. coach, after Brown was granted a timeout he really didn't want with 23 seconds remaining in a game the Americans by then had iced.
Accompanied by his entourage, Pesquera jawed heatedly with Brown and his assistants as the coaching staffs left the court. Pesquera was so worked up he had to be grabbed by his associates and hauled off the court into Spain's dressing room.
The heavily European crowd didn't appreciate the events anymore than Pesquera. Spain's fans jeered, whistled, booed and chanted after Brown's timeout, which came moments after he tried to rescind it.
Then came the Spain coach's tirade at the postgame news conference.
Pesquera ripped into Brown, and into "NBA rules" - he believed that the United States got away with a slew of traveling calls - in a long monologue that was more like a miffed senator's filibuster.
"I had - I stress the word had - a lot of respect for Larry Brown," Pesquera said, arguing that a "coach like Dean Smith never would have done that (call the timeout)."
Brown had asked for a timeout - he was concerned over late turnovers his team had made against Greece and didn't want a repeat against Spain - with just over a minute to go, and the United States ahead 94-86. After more time ticked from the clock, Brown told a game official he no longer needed the timeout.
"He gave it to me anyway," Brown said. "I tried to wave it off, and they wouldn't let me."
The explanation Brown offered during their postgame courtside confrontation didn't pacify Pesquera. It didn't help that Brown spoke in English and Pesquera speaks only Spanish.
"When you do something wrong you can't always say, 'I'm sorry,'" Pesquera said through an interpreter. "If he asked for a timeout wrongly, he could send the team back again and not spend 20 seconds to give them (U.S. players) instructions."
The stew over Brown's timeout was more a red herring for Pesquera's real gripe: what he felt was repeated traveling violations by the Americans.
It explained, in Pesquera's mind, why the United States won and why a big crowd at Olympic Indoor Hall was so pro-Spain, or, maybe more accurately, so anti-United States.
"They (the fans) did not cheer for the weakest, but for the strongest team, and that was us," Pesquera said. "It's time we told the truth."
U.S. personnel offered their own version of the truth: the statistics sheet.
Stephon Marbury scored 31 points, an Olympics record, as he strafed Spain's cozy zone defense with a barrage of hot shots from outside. He and the gang who couldn't shoot straight did just fine: 12 for 22 from three-point range, including 6 for 9 for Marbury.
For one day, anyway, Brown's team solved the vexing shooting funk that was part of its endless stumbles and bungles in those earlier, thoroughly underwhelming, Olympics showings.
Marbury has settled down the U.S. backcourt and made life easier for his cohort, Allen Iverson, who had 16 points and looked closer to his old dazzling self.
No one is quite sure if Thursday's game was a breakthrough or a narrow escape for Brown's team. The score was 63-63 in the third quarter, and the Americans led by four points midway through the fourth.
But it was consistent with Pesquera's tone Thursday that he could use the U.S. shooting bust-out as a way to conk Brown's team for its earlier wobbles.
"We need to be honest about this - the U.S. team was playing at about 40 percent capacity for two games," Pesquera said, adding this zinger about the Americans' three-point success. "The U.S. team came out good. They moved from 18 percent to 55 percent accuracy."
Why the United States has drawn such sniping at Athens is only superficially a mystery.
This isn't the 1992 Dream Team of Barcelona, starring Michael Jordan, that awed audiences worldwide. There are fewer celebrities on the 2004 team, and a lot better players and teams now chasing them.
The Americans have gone from being stars of the show to being targets. And when the world's supposedly most skilled team gums it up the way Brown's guys did in exhibitions and in preliminary round games, the world crowd can turn nasty.
"There's an image issue here," said Pau Gasol, Spain's talented forward, who had 29 points Thursday. "It's kind of how they (U.S. players) act, it's how they've been playing. They've not been playing very well, so everyone wants to kick them out of town."
Brown spent part of Thursday coaching, the rest of it trying to be a diplomat.
"We have won so much, sometimes not acted the best, and it's a compliment people want us to lose," Brown said. "We are the big guy on the block now, and I hope that people will cheer for the underdogs. They do it in our country. They even did it for Detroit."
Maybe that's the answer, Larry. Based on attitudes toward this particular U.S. team, you should have brought the Pistons.
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COMMENTARY AND PERSPECTIVE
CHRISTINE BRENNAN | USA TODAY
BOB KRAVITZ | The Indianapolis Star
DAN BICKLEY | The Arizona Republic
IAN O'CONNOR | The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News
MIKE LOPRESTI | Gannett News Service
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