ATHENS -- Tim Duncan wore a haggard look as he emerged from a locker room of bronze medalists. Hardly an emotional guy, he mumbled that his international basketball career is "95 percent" over and that, oh yeah, "FIBA [stinks]."
Now, Duncan rarely sounds off. The Duke student section used to call him "Spock" after the stoic, all-too-logical Star Trek character. He doesn't do emotion.
But something about his Olympic experience turned him off, made him never want to play internationally again.
And you know what? You can't blame him.
Duncan gave up two summers of his life -- not to rehabilitate his image on behalf of his sneaker company and not to actually accomplish something in basketball. He had already done the latter: two NBA championships, two MVP awards, unparalleled respect among his peers as the game's most complete big man.
Duncan came here because he believed in the ideal of representing his country in basketball. And he must have figured if he was going to head overseas, risk security concerns and his professional reputation as arguably the best player in the game, players such as Tracy McGrady and Mike Bibby would surely follow.
Instead, he was joined by a cut-and-paste team that had little practice time together and ended up fouling out twice in eight games, after fouling out approximately two times in eight years. He battled the ticky-tack calls of international referees. He endured jeers and whistles from people who treat American basketball players like Boston treats the Yankees. Criticized back home and castigated abroad, Duncan walked out of that locker room Saturday night at Olympic Indoor Hall and figured, "Enough already. This just isn't worth it."
But he also always bit his tongue. He could have had an issue with those teammates who chose not to come -- players who, unlike Duncan, haven't won anything. He could have blamed the officials or his coaches. He did none of those.
The league's premier power forward honored his two-year commitment when lesser players did not. But in the international game, Duncan never got the star treatment that every franchise player in the NBA receives. He may as well have been Angola's sixth man.
"How can you make sense of the officiating," said U.S. assistant Gregg Popovich, Duncan's coach in San Antonio. "If Tim Duncan knew this is how the games were going to be called, he would have thought seriously about not coming."
Duncan actually took pride in the bronze medal, happy to earn some reward for sacrificing two summers to the NBA's global marketing machine. While Kobe Bryant consulted his lawyers and Shaquille O'Neal was trying to reach a truce with his appetite, Tim Duncan of the U.S. Virgin Islands wanted to wear USA across his chest.
Bottom line, this team lost an exhibition game to Italy, a team with no NBA players. They opened the tournament with a loss to Puerto Rico, a team whose best player is a backup point guard in Utah. They lost to a Lithuanian team that has only one NBA player, Sacramento reserve Darius Songaila, and is led by Sarunas Jasikevicius, whom the supposed greatest basketball league known to man will not offer a decent contract.
At the end, they avenged that loss to Lithuania with perseverance, an offensive rebound scooped up off the floor and put-back by Lamar Odom, and accuracy, a 15-footer from the right wing from Allen Iverson, who can still knock down a medium-range jump shot if you give him more than five.
What's done is done. Change will come, you can be sure. Following a shocking upset of every U.S. basketball team, change is almost required.
In 1972, the Soviet Union beat the United States after more time was inexplicably put on the game clock after the game had seemingly ended. The result: End-of-game measures were put in place to make sure a timing device -- and not an arbitrary FIBA official -- decided a competition.
In 1988, the American collegians lost to an experienced Russian team. The result: The Olympics were overhauled, and professionals were allowed to compete for the first time, a decision that affected many other sports as well.
If history follows suit, rules changes will follow. Larry Brown kept moaning about the differences from continent to continent. Even NBA Commissioner David Stern got in the act Friday night, prior to Team USA's loss to Argentina in the semifinals.
"You run track and field, you run the same event," Stern said. "You swim, you swim. You fence, you fence. You play basketball, you have to adapt to a different set of rules. I think there's some interesting questions that should be asked what we're seeing, about how it should or shouldn't impact our game."
Translation: adopt some of the rules that made much of this tournament a joy to watch. The wider key won't go over well, and the 10-minute quarters won't happen. But you could see the NBA adopting the use of real zones, rather than the partial, toe-in, toe-out rules they have now.
Alexander Gomelsky, the diminutive Russian coach who beat John Thompson's team in 1988 in Seoul, was asked if major changes need to be made, given that every United States loss in Olympic basketball is viewed as a national sporting tragedy.
"No," Gomelsky said. "America play 118 games and only lose five. But they lose three in one week. Why? Europe catch up.
"Americans jumping is very nice. But sometime against zone, this is not possible."
Regardless, rules changes won't change what needs to be fixed back home. And nothing, it seems, can get Duncan to buy into playing for the United States again. He was asked if his own misgivings about playing internationally would hurt the recruitment of other marquee players.
"I hope not," Duncan said. "I'll try not to share my experiences with anyone."