United States 5-0 vs. Puerto Rico in Olympics
ATHENS, Greece -- The last time the United States and Puerto Rico met in a basketball game that meant something, a shoving match broke out and fans in San Juan threw drinks and debris onto the court.
The episode happened last summer in a semifinal match at the Tournament of the Americas, one of five games between the teams in the past year.
"People got upset, and probably rightfully so, and it escalated,'' recalled Allen Iverson, one of three holdovers from the U.S. team that qualified for the Athens Games on that steamy night nearly a year ago in Puerto Rico.
The teams will play again Sunday night in one of six opening-round games on the first day of competition in men's basketball. The best game of the day, though, could be Serbia-Montenegro vs. Argentina in a rematch of the gold medal game at the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis.
The other games are Angola-Lithuania, Italy-New Zealand, China-Spain and Greece-Australia.
Puerto Rico and the United States played an exhibition game last month in Jacksonville, Fla., the U.S. team winning 96-71 despite the suspensions of Iverson, LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire for arriving late to a team meeting.
America is 5-0 against Puerto Rico in Olympic history, their last match a 115-77 victory by the 1992 Dream Team. At the 2002 World Championships, the U.S. team's 84-74 victory over Puerto Rico was its only win in a span of four games.
"We'll face the U.S. like any other team,'' said 41-year-old Puerto Rico center Jose "Piculin'' Ortiz, who was drafted by the Utah Jazz the same year they chose Karl Malone.
A joke making its way around Athens is that Ortiz is so old, he's the only returning athlete from the last time Athens hosted the games in 1896.
But Ortiz can still play, as evidenced by his triple-double of 21 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in the third-place game against Canada at last summer's Tournament of the Americas as Puerto Rico earned an Olympic berth.
Puerto Rico's roster also includes NBA players Daniel Santiago and Carlos Arroyo, but what concerns coach Larry Brown is the perimeter shooting capabilities of Eddie Casiano and Elias Ayuso.
"If they're hitting their outside shots, they're tough to play,'' said Brown, who took notice of Puerto Rico coach Julio Toro's somewhat disparaging recent remarks in comparing this year's U.S. team with last summer's team.
Toro pointed out one of the U.S. team's weaknesses is its lack of a reliable outside shooter, though he wouldn't commit to packing his defense into a tight 2-3 zone and daring the Americans to beat them from outside.
"It's true that Germany and Italy played zone (in recent exhibition games) and it worked for them, but that's not always the key to beat them,'' Toro said. "Any disadvantage that we can have is mental. We have to go out positive, that's half the game.''
The Americans' dominance over Puerto Rico over the past two summers could make it tough for Toro to convince his squad that it has a fighting chance. But Puerto Rico will certainly not be in awe of the Americans, who also scrimmaged against them in Jacksonville and last summer in New York.
The players became so close that Iverson spent time hanging out with the Puerto Rican players when they stayed at the same hotel last summer, but then there was the fallout in the semifinal game.
With Casiano dribbling on the perimeter holding for the last shot of the first half, Tracy McGrady repeatedly bumped and swatted at Casiano, with Casiano trying to elbow McGrady away.
Casiano eventually lost the ball and fell to the floor, with the ball rolling toward the American basket. McGrady jogged down and picked it up as the other nine players stood still. Before dunking it, McGrady turned and stared at Casiano.
The players subsequently went after each other before coaches from both teams rushed onto the court. Brown was hit by a tossed beer, and assistant coach Roy Williams was pelted in the chest by a coin.
"Reminds me of the days of the six-team NHL or the nine-team NBA,'' Brown recalled Saturday after the U.S. team practiced at the American College of Greece. "When you play that many games against each other, silly things like that can happen.''
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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