- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 18, 2004


ATHENS — The scene was set for an ambush, John Wayne loping solo into Apache-held territory. A staggered, humiliated U.S. men’s basketball team came to Helliniko Arena last night, and what seemed like half of Greece was lying in wait: noisy, flag-waving partisans, all of them here to support Team Hellas, all of them looking to fell the Americans.

“It was difficult to get a ticket,” said Panagiotis Papadopoulos, an Athens resident who was on hand in Greek colors some two hours before tip-off. “It will be hot. Loud? Oh yes.”

“Greeks love to be loud,” added Aggeliki Metaxa, there with Papadopoulos. “It’s in our culture.”

Culture shock, averted: USA 77, Greece 71. The Deferred Dream Team did just enough to survive against a remarkably pedestrian Grecian squad, did it sick and hurt, did it in front of a crowd that wouldn’t have been out of place at a World Cup final.

When it was over, there was no shock, no awe. Just relief. And a shocking almost.

“I don’t want to say we were [mad], but we wanted this one,” said center Tim Duncan, sidelined by a series of ticky-tack fouls for much of the contest. “We wanted to get the last one out of our heads.”

Did they?

“We’re trying to win games,” Duncan added. “We’re not concerned about vindication or anything else. One game at a time. That’s all that matters.”

And so it has come to this, the world’s dominant basketball power, reduced to weary cliche. In Barcelona, the original Dream Team co-opted opponents and opposing fans alike. A trip to the woodshed, followed by autographs. But these would-be Dreamers lack the charisma to have an entire city eat out of their hands; more to the point, they lack the talent and cohesion to put on Globetrotter-like exhibitions.

The headlines back home are alarmist, delivered in a tone of surprise: The rest of the world has caught up. That much is true. They have. And they know it.

During halftime of the preceding Argentina-Spain game, dozens of Greek flags fluttered in the stands. With five minutes left in that contest, the crowd broke into a thunderous chant, everyone clapping and stomping their feet. Ready. Waiting.


No fear.


No awe.


After Puerto Rico’s opening-game drubbing of Team USA, after an embarrassing sixth-place finish at the 2002 world championships, what reason was there to cower?

When Dwyane Wade got in Antonios Fotsis’ face after a hard foul, chest-bumping and yapping, Fostis jawed right back. Charles Barkley’s infamous Angolan elbow seems so long ago.

“As far as I am concerned, I don’t think our team is afraid of the U.S.,” said Athanasios, a 29-year-old from Athens, clad in a Greek flag and matching hat. “I was surprised by [the loss to Puerto Rico]. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I asked people: Is this the Dream Team or college basketball players?”

Good question. Greece isn’t a terrible side — it finished fifth at last year’s European Championships — but it’s highly unlikely it would have qualified for the Olympic draw without its automatic home nation berth. Nevertheless, Team USA needed a desperate, almost-heroic performance from players who in previous years wouldn’t have stepped on the floor.

Lamar Odom was reeling from a stomach virus, wobbly after a morning IV treatment. He prevented a Dimitris Papanikolaou layup that would have cut the U.S. team’s lead to two points with 15 seconds left, then made the game-clinching free throws. Allen Iverson was beat up as usual, thumb broken. Yet there he was, scoring nine of Team USA’s first 18 points, throwing himself into defenders.

And LeBron James? Little used so far, he came off the bench to spark a momentum-shifting first half surge, at one point diving for a loose ball like Michael Phelps into the pool.

“We gotta get better,” coach Larry Brown said. “Right now, we’re 1-1. I’m not worried about getting a medal. I’m worried about the next game.”

That manta, again. Maybe now the Americans understand what they’re up against. USA Basketball certainly didn’t when it fashioned a fantasy draft-style roster, devoid of the shooters and role players so crucial in the international game. And the players themselves didn’t seem to, either, not with the lackluster effort against Puerto Rico and a dismissive attitude toward the rabid Greek fans coming into the tournament.

How, they asked, could the Olympics be any crazier than a Game 7? Than playing at Stanford? At Duke’s Cameron Indoor?

“It’s the same,” said Richard Jefferson, the talkative young forward. “I could care less. I’d rather they be yelling in a foreign language. Then you can’t hear if they’re talking about your mom. It’s not like the fans are going to throw stuff.”

Don’t be so sure. American beach volleyballer Jeff Nygaard, a former indoor player, spent nine months with Athens club team Panathinaikos. He still remembers how to curse in Greek, still recalls a vision of countryman Jeff Stark getting hit in the leg with a lit flare, thrown by supporters of a rival club.

Loud as the booing was last night, Team USA got off easy with the chants of “Puerto Rico.”

“I watched Greece here during the ‘87 European championship when they won against the Russians,” a Swiss reporter said on press row. “It was 10 times worse.”

For the Americans, it could get worse before it gets better. Spain and Argentina both looked superior in their earlier contest, more comfortable with the international style of play, more at ease with fickle officiating, zone defense, perimeter shooting. Brown preaches defense, effort, smart shots. Something has to give.

A week ago, Shawn Marion put things plainly. You have USA on your chest, he said, and everyone wants to beat you. To that, add a corollary: Everyone knows that they can beat you. The Dream is dead. Puerto Rico is a rallying cry. Even if Marion and his teammates don’t realize it.

“If we lose,” Jefferson said, “it’s going to be the biggest news in the world. Period.”

He’s right, of course. But for how much longer?

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