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Golden scare

Last-second miss by Lithuania allows U.S. to squeak by

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Latest: Friday September 29, 2000 11:25 AM


SYDNEY, Australia -- There's a behind-the-scenes convention at the Olympics called the "mixed zone." After an event, reporters and participants assemble on either side of a barrier and dance their conversational dance. A week ago, after the historic achievement of losing to a team of NBA stars by a single-digit margin, members of the Lithuanian basketball party spread themselves over the length of the mixed zone. At one end stood Donn Nelson, the team's American assistant coach. He rued how the Boys from the Baltics had missed the chance of a generation. A U.S. team would not lose, Nelson said, "in my lifetime."

For the final heart-stopping minutes of Friday's semifinal between the same two teams, I thought of Nelson's words. But more than anything, I thought back to the comments of a Lithuanian player.

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Sarunas Jasikevicius had stood at the opposite end of the mixed zone after last week's near miss, and he didn't sound a bit like Nelson. "I think they're gonna lose a game," said Jasikevicius, the former guard at Maryland, of the Americans. "I think they're gonna lose a game here. They're treating this like a vacation."

Perhaps Nelson had been playing possum with his pessimism. All I know is that Friday, Jasikevicius did everything humanly possible to make himself a prophet. His two free throws pushed Lithuania out to a lead with four and a half minutes to play, causing dilettante journalists to stampede to the Sydney SuperDome from other points around Olympic Park. With 1:35 to go, he dropped in two more, giving his team a one-point lead. He made a layup with 9.4 seconds remaining to pull Lithuania to within 85-83. And it was he who launched a three-pointer to win as time expired.

That shot didn't drop. But for the Americans, Lithuania II was a close call of an entirely different order of magnitude than Lithuania I. And it followed, as most great sports achievements do, from the convictions of athletes, not the prescriptions of coaches.

Maybe the entire night was just one absurd aberration. The music coming from the public address system during timeouts -- the theme from Monty Python's Flying Circus -- seemed to indicate as much. But I came away from the evening with a logical lesson. Basketball sages have long assumed that a team of American pros won't suffer its first defeat before the 2008 Olympics. Tonight, thanks largely to an American-schooled guard with a can-do attitude associated heretofore with Americans, that timetable was rewritten.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Alexander Wolff is in Sydney covering the Games for the magazine and Check back daily to read Wolff's behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.

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