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No gold, no problem

James believes U.S. won't be failure for not winning

Posted: Thursday August 26, 2004 3:20AM; Updated: Thursday August 26, 2004 3:20AM
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  LeBron James
LeBron James isn't sure how much playing time he'll get for Larry Brown's squad.
AP

ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- LeBron James is the latest to lower expectations for the U.S. men's basketball team.

"We have one job, to win the gold medal, but we don't think it's a failure if we don't accomplish that," James said Wednesday after the Americans held their final practice before their quarterfinal contest with Spain.

The Spaniards were the class of the tournament in the preliminary round, but it remained to be seen if that success would carry over. The other quarterfinals Thursday pit Puerto Rico against Italy, Lithuania against China and Argentina against Greece.

The U.S. team's final practice at the American College of Greece had a last day of school feel to it, the players munching pepperoni pizza and lounging on benches in the shade before boarding a team bus that bears a Greek flag in the rear window.

Coach Larry Brown said he will shorten his rotation against Spain, which could lead to less playing time for James.

"I had no idea what I was getting into," James said. "This is the Olympic team. I just wanted to be on the Olympic team and have the experience. Everything on the court I did not expect, but I think I'd do it again."

While James could be reasonably certain he'd see some minutes backing up Allen Iverson, there was a strong possibility Carmelo Anthony would remain on the bench for the entire 40 minutes.

Brown has pleaded with both young players to accept reduced roles, but neither has been 100 percent receptive.

"It's probably been the hardest for Carmelo and LeBron because of all the hype," Brown said. "They've always started and been the stars, always been the focal points, and it's been a real terrible adjustment -- difficult adjustment -- for both of them.

"They had no clue. The idea was to get young kids that would sit and learn and be the future of our Olympic team, and it's been very hard for them to figure that out," he said.

Brown, whose mantra is "play the right way," was on the verge of doing something he despises -- playing a zone defense -- against Spain. His position wavered after lobbying from assistant coaches Gregg Popovich, Oliver Purnell and Roy Williams.

"Pop and Oliver and Roy are bugging me about playing zone because of the potential for foul trouble," Brown said. "I hate zone, but I understand what they're saying. It depends on how they referee the game. I can't tell you how it's going to be called, but I can't even comprehend some of the things I've seen."

The officiating has often been poor throughout the tournament, with the U.S. staff most upset by a series of calls during the fourth quarter of their opening-round loss to Lithuania. The Lithuanians attempted 14 free throws, and the Americans shot just two.

Some have suggested the dearth of superstars on the American roster has brought them less respect from the officials.

"There could be some truth to that," Brown said. "Everyone always talks about the 1992 team. But you look at the 1996 team, the centers were [Hakeem] Olajuwon, Shaq [Shaquille O'Neal] and David Robinson, and the power forwards were [Charles] Barkley and [Karl] Malone, and I imagine every referee knew those guys. Now you look at our team and it's a lot different.

"The only one of the big guys they look at and probably say 'Hey, wow,' is Timmy Duncan, and I don't see him getting a lot of respect."

That's one issue; another is how much spirit the Americans have left heading into their most important game of the Olympics.

Some of the players appeared beaten down at times, and Brown criticized the team on a regular basis. A quartet of players -- James, Anthony, Iverson and Stephon Marbury -- continually found ways to frustrate the team hierarchy.

The team's best player, Duncan, has been his usual aloof self, betraying emotion only when officials have called questionable fouls against him or failed to blow their whistles when he was hacked.

Should the Americans defeat Spain, they would face the Argentina-Greece winner in the semifinals Friday night. A loss would relegate the Americans to the seventh-place game Saturday against the loser of the Lithuania-China match.

"We've gotten better," Brown said. "I don't know if it's good enough, but we've gotten better."

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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