In one of the most shocking performances in Olympic history, Puerto Rico dominated the United States on Sunday, 92-73, forcing basketball fans to ponder where the Americans went so wrong. This was never supposed to happen: after a group of college kids lost to the Soviet Union in the semifinals of the 1988 Seoul Games, USA Basketball sent the pros, supposedly securing global dominance forever. The 1992 team, with Michael, Magic and Larry, didn’t call a single time out on its way to the gold. The ’96 squad cruised, and although Lithuania almost slipped by the U.S. in 2000, the team still finished first. Since 1992, the U.S. team had been a gaudy 24-0 in Olympic play.
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Now, the world is catching up. With second-tier NBA players, the U.S., now 109-3 all-time in the Olympics, placed sixth at the 2002 World Championships. America is a victim of its own talent the NBA, with television, has exported its game overseas. And the ‘92 Dream Team, despite Charles Barkley’s taunting of Angola, was the perfect ambassador. But a 19-point loss to Puerto Rico, which has never won a medal, and whose national anthem is The Star Spangled Banner? The U.S. just got beat by the 51st state.
America’s very best, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, did stay home. But Team USA has two MVPs, Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson, and this year’s two best rookies, Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony. Still, the team is flawed. “From day one, I thought some of these young kids had no idea what was in store for them,” said U.S. coach Larry Brown after the game. “I could tell from their looks, from their body language that they wouldn’t be able to forget about individual things and come together as a team. We came out with the mentality that we had to take the first open shot on every possession. And look what happened.”
The United States shot 3-24 from three-point range Iverson missed nine of ten from downtown. Puerto Rico led by 22, 49-27, at the half, and Brown couldn’t pep his players in the locker room in the first possession of the second half, Duncan and Richard Jefferson missed easy put backs, squashing all hope of a quick turnaround. The U.S. did make a little run, but every time the millionaires threatened, Puerto Rico answered. In the third quarter, a Duane Wade dunk stirred the crowd and cut the deficit to 18, but then Puerto Rico’s Eddie Casiano stuck a three in Wade’s face. After Iverson’s only three pointer trimmed the lead to single digits, 75-66, with five minutes left, Arroyo, who finished with a game-high 24 points, drew a three-point play on a running lay-up. A few Puerto Rico fast breaks in the closing minutes sealed it. “I’m angry,” Brown says. “I’m humiliated.”
Still, he insists he’s not surprised. In late July the United States held a weeklong training camp in Jacksonville before playing a handful of exhibition games. Puerto Rico, and most international teams, have played together for a decade. “The U.S. must understand that you just can’t just put a team together that quickly,” says Puerto Rico’s Jose Ortiz, 40, an ex-Utah Jazz forward. “They have to change the way they think about it.” U.S.A. Basketball also needs new GMs. The 10-member selection committee, which includes Detroit Pistons general manager Joe Dumars and Mitch Kupchak, architect of the Los Angeles Lakers, didn't include a topnotch shooter, like Brent Barry or Fred Hoiberg, even though most foreign teams play tight zone defenses that dare opponents to fire from outside.
Luckily, the Olympics aren't March Madness, where it's one loss and you’re out. The U.S has at least four more chances to right itself, and at end of the Olympics Duncan & Co. will most likely wear gold. But for the first time in 16 years, a silver, or no hardware, is a possibility. “These things happen,” says Odom. “No one thought the Yankees would lose to the Diamondbacks. No one though Ali would hit the canvas.” Of course, Ali lost epic fights against Frazier. He wasn’t laid out in the opening round.