Mon, July 15

One horrible dream<br><i>USA men's team humiliated in Olympic opener</i>

OK, admit it – you took great pleasure in watching Puerto Rico’s men’s basketball team dismantle Team USA in Olympic action Sunday.

No, you weren’t being unpatriotic.

You love the red, white and blue, and the thought of any other country taking gold in the sport we invented is as revolting as the American’s play during the 19-point loss.

Your satisfaction lied more in watching a group of uninspired, pampered, mega-gazillionaires eat a healthy dose of humble pie in front of a worldwide audience. And who better to dish it out than a group of fiery, fundamentally sound Puerto Rican nationals with little NBA experience.

Now, maybe the keepers of the game Naismith created will hear you when you decry how far U.S. basketball has fallen, fundamentally speaking, since the real Dream Team of 1992.

That group was first and foremost a team – that beat foes by 40 or 50 points, then signed autographs for the awed players they’d just vanquished.

This year’s group played Sunday with no heart, no hustle and seemingly no clue how to work together. Maybe Allen Iverson wanted an autograph from Puerto Rican point guard Carlos Arroyo afterward?

The talk after the opener was that the United States brought the wrong team to Athens. That there weren’t enough shooters in the group and few skilled passers.

To Team USA’s credit, a number of first tier NBA stars like Shaq, Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady chose to stay home from Athens. That certainly would have made a difference on Sunday and in this tournament.

But the players who did answer the Olympic call aren’t exactly a bunch of slouches – Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Carmello Anthony, Richard Jefferson, Shawn Marion.

How is it that an NBA team can offer these guys millions and millions of dollars and yet they can’t pass or make a shot from 21 feet out? Collectively, Team USA was 3-for-24 from behind the arc, a horrid 12.5 percent.

Wasn’t LeBron supposed to be the next Great One? Aside from one nice pass in the second half, he did nothing other than argue with officials who refused to pander to his Nike swoosh and not call fouls against him.

Didn’t Carmello learn to attack a zone during his one-year stint at national champion Syracuse? Why wasn’t his expertise sought on the subject of solving the pack-it-in defense?

Doesn’t anyone know how to defend the pick-and-roll? The three-point shot? Puerto Rico swished threes at will, scorching the Americans much like Italy did in an exhibition game a few weeks ago.

USA Today columnist Mike Lopresti summed it best: "Sunday was not just a loss. It was an indictment of the system that helped produce it. … Behold the legacy of the NBA. Of the AAU system. Of all the places that produce star mentalities but not teammates, that value highlight reels over fundamentals."

Few disagree that a change needs to be made. The Dream Team system that produced gold medals in 1992, ’96 and 2000 just isn’t working anymore. It’s too tough, even for the NBA’s top players, to come together for a few weeks after a long season and expect to win gold against an ever-improving foreign field.

Some have suggested going back to amateur players, pre-1992 style.

Though that might return some of the heart and hustle we’ve missed in recent Olympics, the results likely would be the same as Sunday’s. The college players wouldn’t have the physical prowess nor experience to keep up with players five and 10 years their senior.

Plus, they would face the same lack of preparation time, only getting a month or two to be together after schools let out.

The NBA could shorten its season to allow Team USA to get in more pre-Olympic practices. But that’s not going to happen as long as the league continues to rake in the mega-bucks from fans who love to see dunks and street-ball moves.

The best solution might be to form a true Team USA that devotes itself first and foremost to representing the country internationally. Pay the players handsomely and give them a coaching staff devoted to teaching team play and the nuances of international hoops.

The caliber of player obviously won’t match the Shaqs and Kobes of the world. But you will get quality guys currently playing overseas or in the CBA, who would relish the chance to wear the USA logo on their chests and increase their exposure.

Of course, one defeat doesn’t mean that all is lost in these Olympic Games. Team USA may yet rally and win the gold medal. But the hoops culture in this country does need an overhaul. The obvious U.S. decline in "our" sport demands it.

Very few basketball fans will stick with a Team USA that continually plays like it did against Puerto Rico on Sunday.

Although we did secretly enjoy watching that one.