- The Washington Times - Monday, August 16, 2004

ATHENS — Their shots clanged off the rim, smacked the side of the backboard or missed completely. Their best player stared at the floor helplessly as the ball squirted between his legs and rolled away.

Whatever remained of America’s aura of invincibility slipped away, too, in a shocking, lopsided loss that left their coach embarrassed and angry.

Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and the rest of the U.S. basketball team fell 92-73 to Puerto Rico yesterday, only the third Olympic defeat ever — and first since adding pros — for the nation that ruled the sport for three-quarters of a century.

It was by far the worst defeat for a U.S. men’s team, coming in the Americans’ first game of the Athens Olympics. Having it happen against a team they had dominated in the past 13 months only made it hurt worse.

“I’m humiliated, not for the loss — I can always deal with wins and losses — but I’m disappointed because I had a job to do as a coach, to get us to understand how we’re supposed to play as a team and act as a team, and I don’t think we did that,” Larry Brown said.

Puerto Rico, which had lost to the Americans five times since last July, led for more than 33 minutes of the 40-minute game, was ahead by 22 at halftime and gamely held off a fourth-quarter comeback for one of the greatest sports achievements in the territory’s history.

“We’re a small island with a big heart,” guard Elias Ayuso said.

The loss was a blow to the Americans’ confidence, but it did little to hurt their gold medal chances. They need only to finish in the top four of their six-team group to reach the quarterfinals.

Still, the defeat will go a long way toward giving the competition hope that it’s someone else’s turn to move to the top of the sport.

As Carlos Arroyo left the court with just over a minute left, he defiantly pulled at the words “Puerto Rico” on his jersey. He led his team with 24 points.

“That was him telling his island of 4million people he was very proud to beat the big colossal from the north,” Puerto Rico coach Julio Toro said.

Anyone in America who didn’t see this coming hadn’t been paying attention to the way international basketball has been changing.

The U.S. team nearly lost in the semifinals at Sydney on a last-second shot by Lithuania, then dropped three games on its home turf at the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis — the first losses ever by a U.S. team of NBA professionals.

This year’s team, weakened by defections and rejections of 12 top players, had opened its pre-Olympic tour of Europe with a 17-point loss to Italy and a last-second victory over Germany — a pair of games in which their vulnerability to a tight zone defense was clearly exposed.

Puerto Rico exploited that weakness, too, and the Americans could do next to nothing against the strategy.

After Lamar Odom made a 3-pointer for the U.S. team’s first points, the Americans missed 16 straight from behind the arc. They tried to get the ball inside, but Puerto Rico collapsed several defenders into the paint and made life difficult for the U.S. team’s best player, Duncan. He and Iverson led the team in scoring with 15 points apiece.

American teams had been 24-0 since the professional Olympic era began with the 1992 Dream Team, but now there is a blemish on their record to go with two losses to the Soviet Union in the 1972 gold medal game and the 1988 semifinals.

“I think Puerto Rico right now is celebrating big because of this,” Arroyo said. “By far it’s the happiest victory of my career.”

The Americans handled the loss with grace, congratulating their opponents and joining them in a huddle at center court before both teams exited to a standing ovation.

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