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
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
"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.''