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Sunday, August 29, 2004
Updated: August 30, 11:42 AM ET
Questions still coming for Team USA

Associated Press

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.''