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Michael Wilbon

The World Is Lined Up For the Knockout Punch

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, August 17, 2004; Page D07


Okay, now for the really bad news. Greece is next up for the U.S. men's basketball team.

Normally, that wouldn't be news of consequence. Greece is somewhere between okay and easily beatable. But at the moment, any opponent is a threat to a U.S. team that is in desperate need of a victory, if not a complete revival. Of course the Americans, from the players to the basketball public back at home to much of the U.S. media, are operating under the misguided notion that all the team needs to do is apply a little more muscle, be a little more determined, show a little more Olympic spirit and Greece, like all the others, will just fall at the feet of the United States in basketball.

Allen Iverson couldn't believe the U.S. team lost Sunday, but the rest of the world could. (Dusan Vranic -- AP)

_____ Day 4 _____
Michael Phelps's quest for seven gold medals at the Athens Games ends.
Americans Natalie Coughlin and Aaron Peirsol strike gold in the 100-meter backstroke.
The U.S. men's gymnastics team wins silver.
The U.S. softball team extends winning streak to 73 games.
The U.S. women's basketball team dominates the Czech Republic.
Venus Williams and Chanda Rubin lose their doubles opener.
Doubles partners Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish lose in Round 1.
The U.S. women's team edges Hungary in water polo.
Greece gets its first gold with a win in synchronized diving.
The IOC postpones hearing for Greek sprinters.

_____ More From The Post _____
Sally Jenkins: Phelps is a swimmer who still has some boy in him.
Michael Wilbon: At the moment, any opponent is a threat to the U.S. men's basketball team.
McDonald's goes for gold with Olympics sponsorship.
Beach volleyball is a beer commercial of a sport.

_____ On Our Site _____
Athens Snippets: The Games need a shot of pizzazz.
Graphic: The men's 200 freestyle was billed as the race of the Games.

_____ Monday's Medals _____
Men's 200-meter freestyle
Men's 100-meter backstroke
Women's 100-meter backstroke
Women's 100-meter breaststroke
Men's team final
Synchronized Diving
Women's 10-meter platform
Men's 3-meter springboard
Men's individual foil
Men's 73kg
Women's 57kg
Women's trap
Men's 10-meter air rifle
Women's 58kg
Men's 62kg

_____ Photos _____
Day 4
Day 3
Day 2
Opening Ceremonies

_____ Live Online _____
Sally Jenkins will take questions and comments, 11 a.m. Tuesday.
Submit questions.

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Certainly, Coach Larry Brown and his team had better not buy into that nonsense or the U.S. men will be looking at a second straight night of Olympic doom. The Helliniko Indoor Arena is one of the few venues here that has been full. With a capacity of 14,100, all of whom seem to be right on top of the court like a modern Boston Garden or Chicago Stadium, it's proven to be something of a pit even when the host nation isn't playing.

So Tuesday night's game, which will begin at 10:15 p.m. locally, is turning into something of a national crusade. The Greeks love their basketball, specifically their NBA basketball. The cab drivers zipping through traffic in Athens don't know Michael Phelps from Marion Jones, but they know their basketball, and they know that the U.S. team is vulnerable, perhaps fatally flawed.

Already the United States has struggled to beat Germany and Turkey in pre-Olympic road games and neither even qualified for the Games. Greece did. And if the U.S. team thought it was at a home-court disadvantage in Istanbul a few nights ago when the Turks were forced to play without their best player, Hedo Turkoglu, they're really about to find out about playing on the road. Helliniko figures to be in a frenzy long before the opening tip-off.

Greece doesn't have a single player of international consequence, but Brown's task between now and tip-off has less to do with worrying about the opponent than with building up his own team after it was ripped down like cheap drywall Sunday night by Puerto Rico, which at best figures to be the fourth best team in the field, behind Argentina, Serbia and Montenegro and Lithuania.

Greece ought not be an obstacle, but it's difficult to know how the United States will respond to being the first team of American NBA players to be tagged with an Olympic defeat, and just the third U.S. men's basketball team to lose an Olympic game. The Americans can play with all the determination they want, but if somebody doesn't begin to shoot better, the game could be competitive, which is the last thing the United States needs.

As if missing 21 of 24 three-pointers wasn't bad enough, it turns out after further review -- according to my friend David DuPree of USA Today, who keeps up with this stat -- that the United States made 21 of 34 shots the players took inside the paint, but only 5 of 41 taken outside the paint. So, the Greek coaches and players undoubtedly spent the day talking about zone defense, double-teaming Tim Duncan, and daring the brick-laying Americans to shoot.

Brown only has so much he can do about the shooting. USA Basketball was more interested in putting together a collection of future stars and selling their jerseys than including a shooter with a low profile. The team is clearly deficient in that area, which caused the Puerto Rican players to shake their heads afterward.

The grounds were still buzzing the day after the U.S. loss. Jose Ortiz, the 40-year-old Puerto Rican forward who attended Oregon State and played for the Utah Jazz, has been facing the United States in international competition for 22 years, he said. "I respect those guys so much, and it means so much to me to be able to beat them in Olympic competition in my final tournament with the national team. Still, I have nothing but respect for them."

Ortiz played against Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and the Dream Team, and he knew then what the inclusion of that team would mean for the future of Olympic competition. "The NBA did this," Ortiz said. "It doesn't surprise me at all because the NBA took basketball to China, to Russia. The NBA exported its product so that players all over the world adopted it and got better at it. But to not have respect for the American players who play in the NBA would be wrong."

Still, asked if he thought coming into the Olympics that the U.S. team appeared vulnerable, Ortiz winced, chose his words carefully and said, "Yes, I believed so." Ortiz knows the difference between the caliber of player the U.S. team had 12 years ago and now.

It should be more obvious than it is to some that the quality of play in the United States has declined. Players come from high school to the NBA without having any knowledge of fundamental basketball, which was not the case with Magic, Bird, Jordan and the others. Of the 12 members of the 1992 Dream Team, Magic was the only one to attend college fewer than three years, and he left with a national championship. Eight of the 12 stuck around for four years of college. Chris Mullin was arguably only the 10th best player on the team, but would be the best all-around player on this year's team, with the possible exception of Duncan.

He'd be the best all-around player on a team that included swingmen like Ray Allen and Mike Bibby, too. In contrast, Serbia had no player 12 years ago the equal of Peja Stojakovic. China had no player close to Yao Ming. Argentina had no player the equal of Manu Ginobili. Germany had no player the equal of Dirk Nowitzki. Turkey had no players as good as Turkoglu and Mehmet Okur. All are now NBA fixtures. So while Americans involved and attached to basketball debate the significance of the loss to Puerto Rico, and whether this would have happened if the 12 best Americans were on the team, players and coaches here old enough to remember the basketball world pre-1992 gave thanks, ironically, to the United States for exporting the game, for delivering it in a way that made them want to play it as well as the Americans played it for 100 years.

So it's quite possible that by design, the chickens have come home to roost.

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