- The Washington Times - Friday, September 6, 2002

Less than two years ago, U.S. players like Jason Kidd still tossed around exaggerated answers to "what if you lost" questions. Things like, "If we had lost, you would have had 12 guys who would have had to change their identities. We would have had to move as far away as we could," as Kidd said following a narrow U.S. victory against Lithuania in the 2000 Olympics.

Well, the U.S. men's basketball team lost Wednesday the first defeat by a U.S. squad comprised of NBA players after 58 victories, 87-80 to Argentina at the FIBA World Championship. Worse, Yugoslavia knocked off the United States 81-78 in the quarterfinals last night, leaving the Americans in position to finish no better than fifth. Still, there have been no reports of Paul Pierce or Jermaine O'Neal submitting paperwork to become John Doe or moving to Indonesia.

Maybe that's because American players, like others in international basketball, have seen this coming for some time and, realizing its inevitability, didn't utter any more outlandish proclamations on what "would happen." The Argentinians outworked and generally outplayed the United States on Wednesday night. Last night, the Americans failed to protect a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, and the once-unthinkable became reality for the second night in a row, culminating decades of foreign players gaining ground on the United States.

In short, the time when U.S. players could overcome not playing together year-round and not working as hard as their opponents sometimes winning through plain intimidation are history.

The most telling indicator may have come at the 2000 Sydney Games, when Lithuania nearly upset the Americans twice. In pool-play against Lithuania, the Americans won just 85-76, posting the closest margin of victory since NBA players began competing in 1992. Margin of victory was the last thing on their minds in the semifinals, when Lithuania battled the Americans to the wire before, down two points in the closing seconds, former Maryland player Sarunas Jasikevicius launched a last-ditch 3-pointer that would have won the game. His shot missed, and the Americans escaped with an 85-83 victory. Even in the gold medal game, the United States beat France just 85-75.

"We were fighting for our lives," Ray Allen said after the Lithuania game two years ago. "It would not have been very fun to play for the bronze medal. But these teams are good."

Indeed, a pack of teams have closed the gap and are coming after the United States, not just Lithuania. France played the United States close in two contests in Sydney, Argentina just beat them and the Sacramento Kings' Vlade Divac, who plays for Yugoslavia, recently said, "We don't think we can beat them; we know we can beat them."

Of course, Divac proved just that last night. But in 1992 his comments would have evoked howls of laughter. That year the United States sent professional players to play in the Olympics after FIBA, the organizing body for international basketball, changed its rules in 1989 to allow "open competition." The change benefited the United States; in 1988 a U.S. team of college players led by Danny Manning and David Robinson lost 82-76 to the Soviet Union in the semifinals of the Seoul Games, and in 1990 the world championship team, with Kenny Anderson and Alonzo Mourning, lost to Puerto Rico and Yugoslavia.

The formation of the Dream Team left its international opposition awestruck other nations had to face legends Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan instead of a group of college kids. As expected, no country even sniffed victory. The 1992 team brought an era of resurgence for U.S. basketball, punctuated when the Dream Team steamrolled to the gold medal in Barcelona.

Dream Team II continued to carry the torch for the United States at the 1994 world championships, as did the 1996 and 2000 Olympic teams. While margin of victory doesn't always indicate the domination one team holds over another, it is notable that since the '92 team won by an average of nearly 44 points a game, that average dropped to 37.7 in the '94 worlds, 31.8 in the 1996 Olympics and 21.6 in 2000 Olympics. (In 1998, NBA players did not participate in the world championships because of labor problems.)

The numbers tell the story, but so do the increasing number of foreign players permeating the U.S. basketball landscape in college and the pros. In June's NBA Draft, three of the top seven overall No. 1 Yao Ming (China), No. 5 Nikoloz Tskitishvili (Georgia) and No. 7 Maybyner "Nene" Hilario (Brazil) and five of the first 16 choices were international players. In comparison, five foreign players had been drafted in the top 15 of the previous four drafts combined.

Foreign players have improved a great deal in the last 10 years and are no longer astounded by the Americans' talent. And the United States is not answering the international challenge with its best the 2002 world championships roster is without Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady.

If the results at the worlds are any indication, the Americans can't afford to go without their best and win.

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