- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The United States had the better soccer team this summer and Argentina had the better basketball team. Not a soul anywhere can dare claim they had money on that exacta.
If there was anything remotely predictable in these World Basketball Championships, which outdid a pretty upside-down World Cup for shock value, it's that George Karl wound up in the muck, covered in anguish.
On the pre-tournament scorecard of potential scapegoats, Karl was certainly no darkhorse. This year? It was borderline probable that Furious George, after presiding over the first team in NBA history to miss the playoffs after leading its division on March 15, would be forced to live now with a harsher stigma.
Take one guess on how he's taking it.
"He's been very classy and he's taken the high road," said USA Basketball president Tom Jernstedt. "But it's safe to say he's bitterly disappointed."
One more guess?
"I think he's taking it the worst of all of us," said U.S. guard Michael Finley.
It's not because Karl is also taking a healthy chunk of the blame for the Yanks' demise, nor that some of that blame is certainly warranted, nor the simple fact that no one in the NBA does angst and self-immolation like Furious George.
It's because Karl showed up for the tournament already suffering, and the misery had deepened significantly even before Saturday's late-night capitulation to Spain.
This stint with Team USA was Karl's shot at a cleansing detour from the Bucks' late-season 5-14 skid to oblivion. Even with a B-list team of U.S. pros, it was a chance for a true patriot -- cut from the 1972 Olympic team -- to help preserve the NBA players' unblemished international record and return for the resurrection project ahead in Milwaukee with gold around his neck.
Instead, Karl will be remembered as the coach of the first NBA-staffed U.S. team to lose a game. The first to lose two in a row and fall totally out of medal contention. The first to officially render us, as proclaimed on a recent SportsCenter, a soccer-playing nation.
In the blame game, Karl does have some questions to answer. He stubbornly persisted with two power players on the court almost exclusively, often the pairing of Ben Wallace and Antonio Davis. In this tournament, especially against Yugoslavia, it was a costly risk. When he could have deployed Raef LaFrentz, a center with some 3-point range to draw Vlade Divac and the other Yugo bigs away from the hoop, Karl left guys on the floor who didn't need to be guarded. Which left a U.S. squad bereft of shooters and full of slashers with nowhere to drive.
As well as Karl knows the international game, having coached at Real Madrid, that strategy has more than puzzled Worlds observers. Yugoslavia, by contrast, wasn't afraid to use the smaller-but-skilled Dejan Bodiroga at the four spot. Someone like Paul Pierce at power forward, in place of Wallace or Davis, would have been the better counter, to make room on the court for another skill guy.
Given that the home team's defense was even worse, most noticeably against Argentina, Karl is going to keep taking shots. And probably a phoned thanks from John Thompson, who used to be the coach we lampooned for international embarrassment.
Yet there was plenty out of Karl's control, and not simply the obvious excuse about Shaq and Kobe and Duncan making themselves unavailable for their country.
It's not Karl who assembled a team that lacked hoop smarts and experience.
It's not Karl's fault that foreign countries are consistently developing more well-rounded players than America does.
It's not Karl who has individualized a team sport at every level -- we're all guilty there -- and who has created a system in which teen-aged stars decide where they'll agree to play and when they're willing to pass the ball a little and how much they want to be coached.
In foreign lands, the best youngsters are exposed to the best coaching well before they bow on the Olympic or Worlds stage. In the United States, NBA coaches can't get anywhere near kids to teach them how to play. The restrictions on high school and college coaches are similarly Draconian.
Why aren't the best 100 high schoolers in the country sent to a Pete Newell-style camp in the summer, rather than the AAU circuit? Pick one assistant coach from every NBA team (for fairness) to work with the best kids every July or August and watch what happens. Argentina and Yugoslavia and Spain wouldn't have caught up so quickly, you can bet.
All of the above explains why there are many Karl sympathizers out there. This wasn't totally like the Milwaukee collapse, in which Karl's constant carping undoubtedly helped take the Bucks down.
"I feel for the whole team," said Don Nelson, who coached the United States to a Worlds title in 1994 -- an experience he found largely unpleasant in the face of unending comparisons to the original Dream Team and the on-court (lack of) decorum from Derrick Coleman, Shawn Kemp, et al.
"I really feel for the guy [Karl]. You can only fail in that job. You can never win. … It's going to be hard for everyone on that team for a long time."
Similar sentiments were expressed by Rudy Tomjanovich after coaching the United States in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, where the Americans were nearly toppled twice by a faceless Lithuania squad missing Arvydas Sabonis, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arturas Karnisovas and the retired Sarunas Marciulionis. Can't bash Karl for one thing: He was willing to take on the thankless task.
"I wouldn't say 'thankless,' but the pressure is very intense," Jernstedt said. "Any time USA Basketball puts a team on the floor, we expect to win."
That's what George expected, too, and what his psyche surely needed. In the past 12 months, Karl's recent hip-replacement surgery and the ongoing rehab barely cracks the top 3 on his ledger of painful experiences. How Karl rebounds with the Bucks, as he enters a two-year contract extension worth $14 million, figures to be one of the stories of the season.
You almost wonder how intently Sam Cassell and the other Bucks will be listening now, when they can greet their coach on Oct. 1 with: "You guys couldn't even beat Spain?"
"I have a lot of good feelings about what's happened here in Indianapolis and nobody is going to be able to take that away from me," Karl said after Friday's narrow, slump-ending victory over Puerto Rico.
Karl insisted as much again after losing to the Spaniards in the fifth-place game, saying: "I don't think I'm going to look at this as a bad experience. I think I'm going to look at this as a good experience. … Frustrating. I wish I could have helped more."
If it's any consolation, Argentina's soccer coach probably said the same stuff in June.
Marc Stein is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
U.S. coach George Karl is likely to suffer more than anyone else because of his team's demise.