Those absent share the blame

ATHENS, Greece -- If there had been a guy dressed up in a gorilla suit, I would have sworn this was just another meaningless NBA game in Seattle in January instead of the Olympics. There was a dance team wiggling and jiggling during timeouts. There were volunteers tossing rolled-up T-shirts into the stands. There was the pounding sound of pop tunes that haven't been popular in years.

Most importantly, there was a team of NBA players just going
through the motions.

"I'm humiliated,'' U.S. coach Larry Brown said after his team's 92-73 loss to Puerto Rico. "Not with the loss -- I can always deal with the wins and losses -- but I'm disappointed because I had a job to do as a coach, to get us to understand how we're supposed to play as a team and act as a team.''

Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, LeBron James and the rest of NBA Inc., will take the official blame for America's first Olympics basketball loss of the Dream Team era, but at least they showed up Sunday. If little else. Just as it did during the Olympic preliminary games, the U.S. played poorly against inferior opponents. The U.S. can still easily reach the medal round -- all it has to do is finish in the top four of its six-team bracket. The question is not whether the players can bounce back, though, it's whether they want to.

"If we didn't bounce back,'' Dwyane Wade said, "we wouldn't be Olympians.''

No, Dwyane. You wouldn't be Olympians if Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Vince Carter and the other marquee U.S. players had not dropped out when called upon to represent their country.

Those guys are really the ones to blame for the poor Olympic performance so far. I'd call on John Ashcroft to retaliate by wiretapping their phones except for the fact that he probably already had even before they returned their regrets to USA Basketball.

But you know what? I was delighted to see the U.S. lose to Puerto Rico and so were thousands of fans surrounding me. This isn't some American bashing -- calm down, Ann Coulter, I'm still upset about the way we got jobbed out of the gold medal in 1972. And this isn't some anti-professional athlete bias -- if you're going to hold the world's greatest sporting competition, you better invite the best athletes, regardless of tax bracket.

No, I'm just sick of the whole Dream Team thing.

It was a little fun the first time in 1992, when we saw perhaps the greatest basketball team of all time play. But it started losing its appeal as soon as the players under the contract of one shoe company used the American flag to cover up the logo of another shoe company. It was a petty act, and it only got worse with each subsequent Olympics.

What is so aggravating is the way the basketball team sets itself apart from the rest of the world's Olympians -- both literally and figuratively. Following in the grand tradition of luxury accommodations, this year's team is staying on the Queen Mary II, anchored outside of town and protected by NATO.

Why shouldn't they? They're not Olympians -- that's beneath them. They're the Dream Team, and they can't be bothered hanging with mere world champions like Paul Hamm and Rulon Gardner. I still remember how the 1996 team marched into the stadium well behind the other U.S. athletes, as if they were their own country, which they probably thought they were. Given the way the U.S. Olympic committee caters to the basketball team's every whim, I was just surprised Li'l Penny wasn't the flagbearer that year.

Now we have Athens, the year the NBA players turned the Olympics into the Pro Bowl. Shaq, KG and about half the league made up reasons why they couldn't play, but the bottom line is they didn't want to play or were too scared to come to Greece. That leaves the U.S. with a team that includes Carlos Boozer and Shawn Marion. This isn't a dream team. It's a Hollywood Squares B list.

After the U.S. lost by 22 to Italy in the prelims, no one should be
surprised by a 19-point loss to Puerto Rico. Everyone knew this team couldn't shoot.

The problem isn't Sunday's loss. With the way the game has blossomed around the world, it's no shame for the U.S. to lose to any country in any venue. Puerto Rico guard Larry Ayuso, who dropped 15 on the U.S. on Sunday, is a living example of how basketball is the world's sport. "We're a small island with a big heart,'' he said.

Ayuso was born in Puerto Rico, moved to the Bronx as a child and then was adopted by a family in New Mexico as a teenager. He played basketball for Hank Bibby at USC, had a couple minutes with the Spurs and spent last season with an Istanbul team. He even has a business card: Elias "Larry'' Ayuso, Combo Guard/3 Point Shooter.''

"I hate to see the U.S. lose but I have to root for my little brother,'' said his adopted brother, Domi Taylor. "It's an achievement to beat the U.S. team. I love the NBA -- I'm a big Lakers fan -- but the big problem is the U.S. is not a team.

"They need to get the college players back. At least when they lost, it
wasn't an embarrassment. But they looked like they didn't care tonight.''

That's the problem. The players don't care, and the fans don't care anymore, either.

The good news is we can fix this. And we don't need to go back to a
collegian-only team or see whether Magic Johnson wants to make another comeback. All we need is one simple rule. And here it is.

Players can make any amount of money. Players can wear any shoe. Players can employ any number of posse members. But if they want to play in the Olympics, they have to stay in the Athletes' Village. If they aren't willing to share a bathroom with their fellow Olympians, if they aren't willing to pluck their hairs from the drains and squeegee the water from around the shower, then the Olympics just don't mean enough to them.

And if they don't, then they shouldn't bother to show up.

Now that basketball is a worldwide sport, the U.S. isn't going to win the gold medal every Olympics. That's OK. But if we can't field a winning team every time out, at least we can field a likable team.

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com.