First, before we bury them, a confession: I loved seeing the United States go down against Puerto Rico. I wanted that team to be so embarrassed by the international talent here that David Stern would one day be told by the commissioner of the European league: "Nice team, Mr. Stern. Maybe one day your players will again compete with us."
This contempt for American basketball was not born out of dislike for a style of play or for a generation of knuckleheads who learned the tricks of the trade before they learned the trade -- although that helped foster those feelings.
What put me over the top was the complete disregard, for years, of any other basketball played outside the United States. Until this week, Americans likened Italy or Argentina or even Lithuania to playing on the secondary court in the big gym. For so long, NBA players treated these teams like the Lakers lackadaisically treated the Pistons in the NBA Finals.
That attitude had me dying to see the United States beaten soundly by a cohesive team -- if for no other reason than to make the players care about basketball the way they used to, before the shoe deals and the good life siphoned some of their desire.
But Saturday night at the Helliniko Indoor Arena, two NBA most valuable players and a roster full of all-stars were shot down by a former role player at Maryland who rejected a minimum contract offer from the Milwaukee Bucks last season. Comeuppance is becoming disturbingly commonplace.
Lithuania 94, Team USA 90.
Do you believe in mediocre?
Sarunas Jasikevicius, the former Terrapin now with BC Maccabi in Tel Aviv, finished the job he began in Sydney almost four years ago -- the night his three-pointer fell short of shocking the United States in the Olympic semifinals. He scored 10 points in 1 minute 9 seconds, dropping in consecutive long jumpers in about the time it takes to pronounce Yah-suh-cave-ich. He completed a four-point play with the most basic of head fakes, coaxing Lamar Odom into fouling him and pushing his team in front in the waning moments of the fourth quarter.
He didn't just outplay Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury; Jasikevicius came up bigger than Tim Duncan in the crucible of a game the United States sorely needed, to avoid Italy, Argentina or Spain in the quarterfinals of the medal round.
The optimist will say America is still 111-4 at the Games since 1936. But throw in the Puerto Rico debacle last Sunday, and the United States has now lost two Olympic games in seven days after losing the other two over the previous 68 years.
Lesson learned. Humble pie served. Watching this team play the most riveting game of the tournament and lose is almost too much for the American hoop psyche. Stern has taken this globalization thing too far.
The NBA has been so magnanimous, teaching the world how to beat us for more than a decade now. We export basketball. Chuck Daly, the original Dream Team coach in 1992, has been to Spain and Italy a dozen times, giving clinics. Del Harris coaches China at these Olympics. Donnie Nelson, the Dallas Mavericks' president of basketball operations, was on the bench when Lithuania nearly shocked the United States in Sydney. He felt so unpatriotic he vowed to never be on the bench again when the Lithuanians played the United States. He was tortured watching Saturday night's game from the Olympic Village.
On one hand, mission accomplished: Lithuania is clearly the best team in the tournament. On the other, the son of a former Boston Celtic is wondering what happened to the game America invented, perfected and then clearly took for granted.
The United States has missed 64 and made only 18 three-pointers in four games, behind a line that only measures 20 feet and a few inches. That's a mid-range jumper in the NBA, and you know what happened to our mid-range jumper? Stephon Marbury, 2 for 14, that's what.
This was a game to be had. Four of Lithuania's top players were in foul trouble, and it committed 20 turnovers. And still, the Americans couldn't beat a team with one marginal NBA player, Sacramento's Darius Songaila.
Beyond the obvious questions of what's wrong on the court (we can't shoot when teams pack in a zone) is the larger question: What's going on in these players' heads?
Unlike Jasikevicius, the unquestioned leader of his team, they're still sorting out who's the go-to threat in the clutch, how to play zone defense and offense, essentially how to forget everything they've been taught from grade school on so they can compete internationally.
Think about it. At every level of advancement -- be it high school, their AAU summer team or, in the case of Carmelo Anthony at Syracuse for a season, a major Division I program -- almost every U.S. player has been the focal point of an offense. All their lives, four other players waited for them to come downcourt, were told to look for them before anybody else.
And Larry Brown is breaking them down, losses serving as sobering learning experiences that a disenchanted public back home can barely stomach. They are not unlike a group of high school kids going through the preseason, finding out about each other and themselves. Iverson, LeBron James, Richard Jefferson -- they're all gradually reinventing themselves as players to fit in.
"It's like being deprogrammed," Carlos Boozer said after the loss to Lithuania. "We have to relearn things like we're in college again. The one thing we can from this loss is we're a lot better now than when we came here."
Wild, huh? A team featuring Iverson and Duncan, underdogs in the big gym. That's what happens when you don't take the guys on the secondary court seriously.
It becomes time to take our game back.