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Michael Wilbon

The End of an Era

Basketball | Allen Iverson and the U.S. Now Must Look Up at a New World Order

By Michael Wilbon
Monday, August 16, 2004; Page D01

ATHENS

The score may shock you but the result should not. In fact, it was entirely predictable if we look at what is instead of what was.

For first time in the 12 years NBA players have played in Olympic competition, the U.S men's basketball team lost an Olympic game. It's only the third time the U.S. men have been defeated in Olympic play, which is why Puerto Ricans screamed they had "shocked the world" in the immediate aftermath of their very thorough 92-73 manhandling of the U.S. team.


Carlos Arroyo shows the world who is first to topple U.S. men's Olympic basketball squad since 1988. "They have . . . freestyle players," he said. (Michael Conroy -- AP)



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Unquestionably, the first defeat of a team of American NBA players sends reverberations throughout the basketball world, probably even the entire world of sports. In 1972, the U.S. team was cheated out of victory, which was given to the Soviet Union. In 1988, the U.S. sent a bunch of college kids to Seoul, where they lost to a Soviet team full of pro players. But there's no asterisk to attach to this defeat, no extenuating circumstances, no controversial ending or inequity of talent.

Anybody who wanted to see this defeat coming could see it as clear as an onrushing train. Teams from San Juan to China have spent the past 12 years creating clever strategies and exploring every nuance of the game's fundamentals, while Americans obsessed over dunking and reassured each other we were keepers of the global game.

Well, apparently not this time, not this tournament and not with this team. The Puerto Ricans didn't just win, they were better. The U.S. players and Larry Brown talked predictably afterward about not wanting it enough, about being flat at the beginning of the game. And it's all such a bunch of junk. It's just easier to use that excuse than to face the fact that the other team is better, that its pieces fit better and function with a smarter purpose.

USA Basketball put together a team to market, not a team to win.

And this isn't about Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady not playing.

The U.S. team didn't need more rebounding, strength or girth Sunday night against Puerto Rico; it needed shooters. But this U.S. team doesn't have any. This U.S. team has Tim Duncan and 11 guys who do the same thing: go to the rack. USA Basketball wants to sell sodas and jerseys and whatever else is being marketed. Brent and Jon Barry didn't turn down an invitation to play on this team, not that I know of. Fred Hoiberg would have paid his own way to Greece and slept on a dormitory bed with no pillows to play on this team. Casey Jacobsen didn't say he wouldn't come, nor did Brian Cardinal.

They're shooters. Not stars, but shooters.

The U.S. team's problem isn't lack of effort, it's lack of skill.

While starless Puerto Rico made 8 of 16 three-point shots, the U.S. marketing machine was making 3 of 24. A Puerto Rican guard named Eddie Casiano hit all four of the threes, including one while being fouled and another from 30 feet just to rub it in during the final seconds of the game.

If you can't shoot the three-pointer in international basketball, you can't win.

You know who the best three-point shooter on the U.S. team is? Richard Jefferson of the New Jersey Nets. He's the 47th-ranked three-point shooter in the NBA. That's 47th. When Carlos Arroyo, Puerto Rico's point guard, was asked whether his team was concerned with any U.S. player shooting well from the outside, he said, "Not really. . . . They don't have any spot-up shooters. . . . They have more off-the-dribble shooters and freestyle players."


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