Sunday, August 15, 2004 Updated: August 23, 9:40 AM ET
No longer America's sport
By Adrian Wojnarowski Special to ESPN.com
ATHENS, Greece -- Carlos Arroyo grabbed the front of his jersey with two hands, preening the sweat-soaked Puerto Rico on his uniform for Dwyane Wade to stand there and see in the final minute of this historic happening. Arroyo had taken the hard fouls, the dismissive American attitudes and years and years of the United States treating his national team like the Washington Generals. No more, those blazing eyes insisted. No more.
He wasn't just representing the tiny island off the U.S. coast, but the world in this moment. If the invincibility of the U.S. in basketball had been shaken before these Olympic Games, it's been shattered now.
A.I. can keep glowering at the scoreboard. It's not changing.
This had been his game, his night, his tiny island nation's moment and they would've stayed inside the Helliniko Indoor Arena and pounded the Americans until morning if they let them. They were going down for the worst loss in U.S. Olympic basketball team history, 92-73, and this was something straight out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, straight out of the worst fears of every flawed top seed with too many expectations, and too little game.
The United States had never lost an Olympic game with its NBA players, and lost just two in history to the Soviet Union: in the gold medal game of the '72 Munich Olympics, and semifinals of the '88 Seoul Games. Those were stunning for different circumstances, but losing a game in these Olympics had come to be expected within the basketball community.
Nobody believed it would be Puerto Rico. Nobody believed Allen Iverson would walk off the floor and confess, "They were the best team on the court."
Nobody did. Nevertheless, all the flaws of the Americans were on parade: The immaturity, the incompatibility, the poor construction and the biggest problem of all ... they can't just get thrown together in July, show up in August and leave with a gold medal.
Maybe with Shaq, Kobe and Kevin Garnett, but probably not with the flaws surrounding the best player in the world, Tim Duncan. Mostly, Duncan had two and three bodies thrust on him in those tight zone defenses, daring the U.S. to shoot over it. Still, he had 15 points and 16 rebounds, and thank America's good fortune that it annexed the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Where would they be without Duncan? Out of the medal round. Still, they haven't gone through him nearly enough on this team. The United States lobbed 24 3-pointers to the rim, missing 21, a pathetic way to attack the kind of zone defense everyone will use against them.
"If you try to go one-on-one with them, they'll kill you," Arroyo said.
Puerto Rico had been a punching bag too long, but it had the USA down and never let it breathe. The U.S. knew the tests were on the way at these Olympic Games, but they never believed it would start so soon. Puerto Rico has been playing together for four years, and that was so much of the difference.
"This is a different game than the NBA," Puerto Rico's 40-year-old statesman Jose Ortiz said. "And my advice is don't take other teams lightly."
The blowout loss to Italy was the best thing to happen to the young Americans to start the pre-Olympic tour, but Larry Brown said Sunday, "There is nothing to take out of this game." No more discussion of wake-up calls, because that would suggest that the United States can just decide it wants to win this tournament and just go do it. That isn't true. Right now, it isn't good enough. Truth be told, they're a wretched team, with no perimeter passers, no shooters and no chemistry. If it wins the gold medal, it'll do it on the greatness of Duncan and Larry Brown.
Listen, there's no use ripping this team for the performance. Rip the system. Rip the way USA Basketball does business with the NBA. Because it's a disaster right now. If you want to blame someone for this loss, blame the superstars staying back stateside for the summer. Blame the way the team is just thrown together, and sent overseas.
"That's what they have to understand," Ortiz said. "It's part of the way they have to think about getting teams together."
Well, the United States is stuck with this team now. And they'll return to the floor on Tuesday night, at 10:30 p.m. local time, when the Indoor Arena will be like Cameron Indoor Stadium when those fans come flooding through the doors to watch Greece meet the United States.
"They're a great team," Arroyo said. "They'll bounce back."
The United States has a few great players, but they'll never be a great team. It's too late, and this team is too far gone down a disastrous road. Somehow, they need to become college kids again -- or, in some cases for the first time -- and survive and advance, survive and advance. They're a long way from the gold medal now.
This wasn't a wake-up call Sunday night, this was the reality of USA Basketball. Carlos Arroyo grabbed his uniform, splashed that Puerto Rico name in the face of the Americans and his message was unmistakable: The rest of the world wasn't just walking into the gym, and handing over their lunch money anymore.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.