Brown considers changing defensive approach

Updated: August 25, 2004, 6:20 PM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- The quality of the officiating at the Olympics has so troubled Larry Brown that he may just have his team play the wrong way.

The U.S. coach whose mantra is to "play the right way" was on the verge of being talked into something he despises -- playing a zone defense -- in Thursday's quarterfinal against Spain. The voices calling for change belonged to assistant coaches Gregg Popovich, Oliver Purnell and Roy Williams.

"Pop and Oliver and Roy are bugging me about playing zone because of the potential for foul trouble," Brown said. "I hate zone, but I understand what they're saying. It depends on how they referee the game. I can't tell you how it's going to be called, but I can't even comprehend some of the things I've seen."

The refereeing has often been poor throughout the tournament, with the U.S. staff most upset by a series of calls during the fourth quarter of the Americans' opening round loss to Lithuania, when Lithuania attempted 14 free throws and the Americans shot just two.

"That's why you've got to play perfect," Brown said.

The U.S. team's final practice Wednesday at the American College of Greece had the feel of the last day of school, the players munching pepperoni pizza and lounging on benches in the shade before boarding their team bus that bears a Greek flag in the rear window.

Expectations for the U.S. team have been lowered so much that a sports betting parlor in Belgrade listed Spain as a 3-point favorite. The Spanish team went undefeated in the preliminary round and won all of its pre-Olympic tuneup games.

Brown plans to shorten his playing rotation, which likely will mean less time -- or none -- for Carmelo Anthony.

"He's not playing, he knows there's nothing he can do about it," teammate LeBron James said. "For what reason I can't tell you, and he couldn't tell you if you asked him the same.

"As a friend and teammate of his, I'm just trying to keep his spirits up."

How much spirit the Americans have left could be a big factor in their most important game of the Olympics. Some of the players have seemed beaten down at times, Brown has criticized the team regularly, and a quartet of players -- James, Anthony, Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury -- has found various ways to frustrate the team's hierarchy.

"I had no idea what I was getting into," James said. "I just wanted to be on the Olympic team and have the experience. Everything on the court I did not expect, but I think I'd do it again."

The team's best player, Tim Duncan, has seemed aloof, betraying emotion only when officials have called questionable fouls against him or failed to blow their whistles when he has gotten hacked.

Fans back in America have already branded the team failures for losing to Puerto Rico and Lithuania, doubling the number of losses previous Olympic teams compiled over 68 years.

"For us, we don't worry about what everyone else says," James said. "We have one job, to win the gold medal, but we don't think it's a failure if we don't accomplish that."

Some have suggested the dearth of superstars on the American roster has brought them less respect from the officials.

"There could be some truth to that," Brown said. "Everyone always talks about the 1992 team, but you look at the 1996 team, the centers were (Hakeem) Olajuwon, Shaq (Shaquille O'Neal) and David Robinson, and the power forwards were (Charles) Barkley and (Karl) Malone, and I imagine every referee knew those guys. Now you look at our team and it's a lot different. The only one of the big guys they look at and probably say 'Hey, wow' is Timmy Duncan, and I don't see him getting a lot of respect."

Should the Americans defeat Spain, they would face the Argentina-Greece winner in the semifinals Friday night. A loss would relegate the Americans to the seventh-place game Saturday morning against the loser of the Lithuania-China match.

"We've gotten better," Brown said. "I don't know if it's good enough, but we've gotten better."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press