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Questions still coming for Team USA

8/30/2004

ATHENS, Greece -- Standing on the lowest of the three medal
podiums, Richard Jefferson couldn't resist sneaking a peek.

Standing above him one spot to his right was Argentina guard
Pepe Sanchez, who was about to have a gold medal draped around his
neck, and Jefferson's eyes were drawn to the reward he could only
look at, not touch.

It will be at least four years before another U.S. men's
basketball player gets that close to the gold, and it could be even
longer before an American is the one on the receiving end of a
similar jealous gaze.

The Athens Games hammered home a point: The world hasn't just
caught up in the 12 years since the Dream Team was born. It has
sped past and left the United States in its wake.

Shame should not be attached to the U.S. team that won a bronze
medal, though the questions beginning with the word "Why?'' are
legitimate.

Some of the answers: They didn't practice together long enough.
They weren't familiar with each another, nor with the rules of
intricacies of international basketball. They didn't have pure
shooters. They didn't adapt to their coach, nor he to them.

But at least they showed up.

If blame is to be cast on anyone, it should go to the players --
including Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Mike Bibby, Ray Allen,
Kenyon Martin and Ben Wallace -- who refused to come.

"The only thing that bothered me was when I heard so many
people talking so bad about the guys on this team. It was
disrespectful, it was ignorant,'' Jefferson said. "They want to
say the 12 guys who decided to come don't care, they're not playing
hard enough, they're not playing together. Why? Because you lose a
game?

"Just because you lose a game doesn't mean you're not playing
together. It just means you're unfamiliar with one another. That
was some of the most ignorant stuff I've ever heard,'' he said.
"Now that it's over, we can finally talk about it.''

The Americans headed home Sunday on an early morning flight,
riding along with the women's basketball team that won gold. No
doubt it was a quiet trip for the men, whose faces betrayed their
frustration as the medals were handed out.

Carmelo Anthony stood on the podium shaking his head from side
to side. A couple of players gave halfhearted waves to the handful
of American fans who stood behind them and cheered. Allen Iverson
and Stephon Marbury exchanged glances and giggled self-consciously
as wreaths were placed atop their heads.

As the bronze medals were placed around their necks, the players
from Argentina ignored the Americans as they turned to their fans,
danced and exchanged salutes, smiles and raised fists.

Nothing remotely resembling a smile crossed Iverson's face as
the Argentinian national anthem was played and the country's blue
and white flag was raised to the rafters, the Italian flag a notch
below and the Stars and Stripes even lower. Iverson stared at the
flags the entire time, the enormity of the moment seeming to strike
him hard.

The Americans wasted no time walking off following the ceremony,
Iverson and Marbury the first to quickly remove the wreaths from
their heads.

Argentina's squad, the core of which has played together in
international tournaments since 1996, remained on the court and
celebrated jubilantly for another 20 minutes.

"The most special thing you can do is win for your country,''
Argentina guard Manu Ginobili said. "We win in soccer in the
morning and then in basketball. Argentina is on top of the world
because it is on top of the two biggest sports in the world
today.''

America will have to go back to the drawing board.

USA basketball president Tom Jernstedt said the federation has
already kicked around several ideas for how to select a team for
the Beijing Games in 2008, from giving the coach a greater say in
picking the roster, to bringing in the NBA champions, to conducting
tryouts ahead of a lengthened training camp.

He conceded the Americans might have been too slow to adapt to
changes in the world basketball landscape, sticking too long with
the formula first used in 1992 -- picking the 12 best players they
can find and throwing them out there in the belief that sheer
talent would overwhelm the opposition.

"We'll go back and review and figure out if there's a better
way of doing it,'' Jernstedt said. "Leaving with a gold and a
bronze is not quite what we expected.''