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Myths, realities of Team USA

Two changes would have made difference ... and they're not Shaq, Kobe

Posted: Monday August 30, 2004 2:35PM; Updated: Monday August 30, 2004 3:10PM
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Walter Herrmann
Argentina's play was head and shoulders above the U.S. in Athens.

Funny how often, while watching the U.S. Olympic team flounder in Athens, I thought of Detroit.

Detroit in the Pistons sense, of course, when (like many others) I wondered whether the U.S. simply should have sent Larry Brown with his other team, the most cohesive and selfless NBA champions in memory.

But I suspect that the result would have been the same. And that got me thinking about Detroit in the other sense, and the clangorous wake-up call that Japanese automakers delivered back in the '70s to the complacent stateside auto industry. It did indeed learn from foreign competition, much as the U.S. basketball establishment must do now.

It's worth noting that two of the American Olympians' three losses turned on four-point plays -- Sarunas Jasikevicius' line-drive 3-pointer and subsequent free throw late in Lithuania's pool-play defeat of the U.S., and Manu Ginobili's trey-and-one in the semifinal loss to Argentina that ended the Americans' gold-medal dreams. Those plays highlighted two essential things the rest of the world has more of than the Yanks do: savvy and shooting ability. Savvy is what allowed Jasikevicius and Ginobili to get their respective up-fake-ees, Lamar Odom and Dwyane Wade, into the air. And in each case, after being fouled, the non-American bottomed out the free throw to remind us that, whether the shot is free or for three, Johnny can't stroke it anymore, while any number of Jeans and Juans can.

Of course, I'm oversimplifying here. The U.S. failed to bag the gold for many other reasons, including deficits in playmaking ability, versatility, maturity and poise. (Two things did not lead to the Americans' disappointing bronze-medal finish. One was the absences of Kobe, Shaq, K.G., etc., none of whom would have made up that 19-point deficit against Puerto Rico, or locked up Jasikevicius and Ginobili as they willed their teams to victory. The other was the dreaded "international rules" that Brown kept talking so dolefully about. The baskets stood 10 feet high. A little slope to the foul lane didn't flummox anyone. And those short 3-point shots were easy for English and non-English speakers alike.)

What was infinitely tougher was playing an international team that, like Argentina, is a real team, whose players have played together for years, under a system installed by one basketball mind.

What should be done? For starters, two things. The U.S. needs:

•  A standing national coach. American Dan Peterson, the former coaching legend in Italy, has been agitating for one for years. "An active NBA coach will not come down on anyone for anything," he says. "They walk on eggs. In Italy they call Larry Brown 'The Moderator.' He and [2002 U.S. Worlds coach] George Karl coached like guys giving intimate talks on the ins and outs of stem-cell research." More, he could install the system most likely to succeed on the international stage, and thoroughly scout the world in advance of each major competition.

•  A standing national team. Why wouldn't Argentina beat the U.S. Olympic team? The Argies fielded essentially the same group that emphatically beat the last assemblage of NBA players it faced, at the 2002 Worlds. Both games turned into exhibitions of the victors' superior feel for one another. In each case it was the misfortune of the American teams to be facing Ginobili, Luis Scola Fabricio Oberto and Co., and their wonderfully choreographed backscreens, for the first time.

If a core U.S. group were kept together for a quadrennial, under the same coach -- Peterson suggests a retiree with an NBA pedigree, such as Phil Jackson, Pat Riley or Chuck Daly -- the players could pick up with one another after each NBA season.

In the meantime, let's retire for good all that chatter about a world "catching up with" or "caught up to" the U.S. The world caught up in Sydney four years ago, when Jasikevicius just missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have eliminated the U.S. It surpassed the U.S. two years ago at the Worlds, where three different countries beat the Americans, on Hoosier soil no less. Five nations have now put a hurt on various NBA Americans over the past three summers -- six if you throw in Italy's exhibition defeat of the U.S. Olympians early this month. The U.S. is now an also-ran in the sport that was invented on its soil.

Quick, USA Basketball: It's time to devise the Saturn of national team programs.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Alexander Wolff is author of Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure, which is available in paperback from Warner Books. He can be reached at http://www.biggamesmallworld.com.