Short three stars, Americans win first game
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Reunited, and it feels so ... familiar.
The U.S. Olympic team tipped off its exhibition season with an easy 96-71 victory over Puerto Rico on Saturday, although the most intriguing action came beforehand between old sparring partners Larry Brown and Allen Iverson.
Brown held Iverson, LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire out of the game for showing up late to a pre-game meeting, a move that brought back memories of the six fractious seasons The Coach and The Answer spent together with the Philadelphia 76ers.
"They broke a team rule and we are a team," Brown said. "They paid the penalty. Nobody wanted to embarrass them, and now we're moving on."
Brown and Iverson have been down this road before. Their time together with the Sixers was riddled with disagreements, tardiness and a general lack of harmony. They claimed to have patched things up since Brown left after the 2003 season, but in their first significant reunion, there was trouble.
Iverson claimed he "couldn't have been more than five minutes late."
"I'm the captain on the team and to be suspended just for being a couple minutes late just doesn't sit well for me," he said. "I'm supposed to be one of the leaders of the team, and this is not a good look."
Almost as upsetting to Brown was the decision by arena officials to announce the suspensions over the public-address system. A sellout crowd of about 14,000 fans who don't get to see NBA stars pop in to Jacksonville too often booed lustily, and Brown glared over to the scorer's table.
"I was totally embarrassed by the announcement, because it embarrassed those guys, and it was totally uncalled for," Brown said.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the crowd chanted "I-ver-son, I-ver-son," but to no avail. He, James and Stoudemire spent the entire game watching from the bench in shorts.
"It was a surprise that he made that decision at first," said James, who claimed he was between five and 10 minutes late. "But I've got to go with what the coach said."
The other nine players put in a hot-and-cold effort to be expected from a group that is just getting to know each other and was further hamstrung by the suspensions.
Carmelo Anthony and Carlos Boozer led the Americans with 16 points each. Dwyane Wade had eight assists, more than half of which were alley-oops, or sweet, no-look feeds. Tim Duncan finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Shawn Marion finished with 12 points and nine rebounds.
"I thought it was a great exhibition of what we can do out there," Marion said.
There were rough spots, too.
After getting off to a quick start, the Americans went cold and got sloppy in the second quarter, possibly in part because they were playing with only two guards, only one of whom, Stephon Marbury, was a true point guard.
The U.S. team also has trouble shooting outside, going just 3-for-7 from 3-point range, a problem that existed even before the suspensions, although one that surely won't be as bad when Iverson and James return.
If Puerto Rico was the 51st state, Larry Ayuso might have a chance at making the U.S. roster. Ayuso (19 points) hit five 3-pointers to keep Puerto Rico close in the second quarter, and when his backcourt mate, Carlos Arroyo, made a steal and layup, Puerto Rico trailed by just five before halftime.
The Americans tore off 10 of the first 14 points in the third quarter to go ahead comfortably again, although Brown, who prides himself on defense and discipline, was less than ecstatic with this performance.
"We were better in areas we need to improve on, but there's a long, long way to go," he said. "We turned it over a lot (20 times), the execution wasn't great. But this is only our fifth day" together.
The United States left Jacksonville later Saturday for Germany, where it will continue with workouts and exhibitions until the Olympics, where the Americans will open against Puerto Rico on Aug. 15.
It will be interesting to see how big an impact -- if any -- these suspensions will have, especially on the fragile relationship between Iverson and Brown.
Earlier this week, they reiterated that they were getting along fine since Brown left for the Pistons, but on Saturday, Brown made it clear he's still the boss.
And Iverson made it clear he wasn't happy with what happened.
"I was surprised at the whole thing," he said. "I didn't know that if we came late to anything, we'd have to sit out a game. I didn't know that."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press