It's possible for Team USA to lose
Argentine Manu Ginobili seemed flabbergasted after being asked why his team played so poorly last summer in the gold medal game of the Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico.
Argentina had been steamrolled 106-73, the Americans dunking and dominating with equal flair in one of the most impressive displays of athletic brilliance in the long and staggeringly successful history of U.S. national basketball teams.
"What? You didn't expect us to beat them, did you?'' Ginobili asked.
Actually, some folks did.
Argentina had defeated a U.S. team of NBA players at the 2002 World Championships, then stayed even with the Americans for all but the final minute of a second-round game at the Tournament of the Americas.
But as Ginobili hinted, Argentina expected to see the Americans' best effort in the gold medal game -- and that's exactly what happened.
After one particularly dominant stretch that included five alley-oop dunks in a span of six possessions, the Americans -- with a star-laden team including Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal, Vince Carter, Mike Bibby, Elton Brand, Kenyon Martin and Ray Allen -- led 53-19.
Argentina's players hung their heads, their minds causing their body language to convey the obvious: The Americans have the best basketball team in the world, case closed.
Or at least they did.
America won't be sending as strong of a team to Athens, and the men's basketball gold medal is more up for grabs than it has been in 16 years.
Security concerns, fatigue, injuries, indifference and a pending criminal trial have knocked some of the biggest names off the U.S. roster and prevented several of their most worthy replacements from stepping in.
Only Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and Richard Jefferson remain from the team that won the Tournament of the Americas, and the rest of the roster was filled with some of the NBA's best young players -- almost none of whom have any experience playing under international rules in front of hostile crowds.
Among the new U.S. players are LeBron James, the NBA rookie of the year, and Emeka Okafor, who was picked second overall in this year's draft by the expansion Carolina Bobcats.
"I have a chance to get a gold medal,'' Okafor said. "That's one of the reasons I jumped at this opportunity. I'm really looking forward to it.''
The roster also includes Shawn Marion, a member of the U.S. team that lost three times -- to Argentina, Yugoslavia and Spain -- in Indianapolis during the 2002 World Championships.
The others are: Carlos Boozer, Amare Stoudemire, Lamar Odom, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Stephon Marbury.
The young American players could be caught off-guard by the reception they'll receive in Germany, Turkey and Serbia on their pre-Olympic tour -- and in Athens during the Summer Games amid an environment of heightened anti-American sentiment.
"Most of these guys have been adored wherever they've played,'' U.S. coach Larry Brown said. "Compared to Ohio State at Indiana, or North Carolina at Duke, I guess it'll be taken up a notch or two. It's going to be an interesting thing to see how our players respond.''
The neophytes will quickly discover that international crowds are far more boisterous than the ones back home, and the referees are different, too. The international game tends to be far more physical, and referees' calls can be a problem at the worst possible moment.
In the semifinal game against Lithuania at the Sydney Olympics, the Americans led by two points and had possession with the clock winding down late in regulation.
In a ruling that continues to baffle Brown, a jump ball violation was called against Antonio McDyess and the referees quickly awarded the ball to Lithuania. Guard Sarunas Jasikevicius dribbled down court and tossed up a 3-pointer that barely missed, sparing the U.S. team the humiliation of losing for only the third time in Olympic history.
American teams have compiled an overall record of 109-2 in Olympic play, the only losses coming in 1972 and 1988.
Their competition will be strong in Athens, with Lithuania, Serbia and Montenegro, Spain and Argentina expected to be among the teams contending for the gold medal. Rosters for those teams will be set later this summer, but all four are expected to include NBA players.
Serbia and Montenegro might have the best pure shooter in the Olympics, Peja Stojakovic, while Lithuania could have Stojakovic's NBA teammate, Darius Songaila, and Spain will be anchored by Pau Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Argentina's team includes Ginobili and other players who have spent at least a season or two in the NBA and several years playing professionally in Europe. More important is those players' familiarity with each other after playing together on junior teams before graduating to the national team.
Not only has the U.S. team never played together but also it has a few personalities -- most notably Marbury and Jefferson -- who don't particularly like one another.
Brown, who chased after the referees in Sydney following the U.S. team's close call against Lithuania, will have to convince his youngsters that the Olympics will be anything but a cakewalk.
"We have the talent, and we also have coaches that really pushed us,'' said Brand, who vividly recalled assistant coach Greg Popovich's face turning red as he exhorted the U.S. team to be prepared for a true challenge against Argentina last summer.
"That fervor was inside of us, and we were ready to play,'' Brand said. "Coach Pop and Coach Brown, they're going to let the players know it's not going to be easy.''
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press