Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Italy surprises young U.S. with upset in Athens tuneup

U.S. men's basketball team embarassed in blowout loss

Florida Today

Massimo Bulleri doesn't have a $90 million Nike contract, like LeBron James. Giacomo Galanda's jersey isn't flying off the racks in Rome, like Carmelo Anthony's is in Denver.

USA Basketball head coach Larry Brown is not amused.
(AP photo)
And they don't call Gianmarco Pozzecco "The Answer," like they do Allen Iverson (actually, Pozzecco has an even better nickname - "The Atomic Fly").

But for one day, playing the kind of team basketball Larry Brown may not have enough time to instill in his Team USA bunch, the anonymous Italians upstaged the NBA multimillionaires in the most shocking turn of events since America added pro players 12 years ago.

Tuesday's 95-78 blowout - the worst loss ever for an American team with NBA players in international competition - was cheered in Belgrade when the PA announcer interrupted the game between Serbia & Montenegro and Lithuania with the breaking news, and sent shock waves that washed ashore in America.

"Very surprising," said Pat Williams, the Orlando Magic's executive vice president. "But keep in mind, this is a very young USA team (average age: 23) and they haven't been together very long. No question, the world is improving in basketball very quickly, and that will continue in the years ahead. Needless to say, the Olympics will be interesting to follow."

Clearly, times have changed from as recently as 2000, when Team USA roughed up the NBA-less Italians 93-61 on its way to a third straight undefeated Olympic tournament.

Two years later, Argentina upset a George Karl-coached Team USA at the FIBA World Championships, 87-80.

Then Yugoslavia did it, 81-78.

And Spain, 81-76.

Those teams at least had NBA players on their rosters, like the Dirk Nowitzki-led Germany gang that Team USA will face Wednesday and the Yao Ming-led China contingent it may see in Athens.

Italy had not one NBA player on its roster, further proof that the rest of the world is catching up to the United States.

"Maybe the USA shouldn't send NBA players," Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban joked Tuesday. "Might make the league look bad and hurt our ability to market. Or maybe teams that play together beat stars. Or maybe Team USA is playing possum to make the games more interesting. ... Or maybe they just haven't had enough time to play together.

"I'm betting on the last one."

So are others around the NBA, who can't believe a team showcasing the league's brightest star (Tim Duncan) and its promising future (James, Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire) is really 17 points worse than Giacomo Galanda & Co.

"Nobody likes to lose," Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandweghe said from Denver, "but Larry Brown is a great coach and sometimes a great team responds well to an early loss."

Brown has his work cut out for him between now and Athens:

• The latest Dream Team is short on shooters, as was evidenced by Team USA's 4-for-13 effort on 3-pointers Tuesday. In two exhibitions, Stephon Marbury has yet to make a 3-pointer. Past USA outfits had at least one dead-eye shooter - Allan Houston and Steve Smith in 2000, Reggie Miller in 1996, Chris Mullin and Larry Bird in 1992.

• This team doesn't play defense quite like Brown's Detroit Pistons. Italy drilled 15 3-pointers - it put up 35 - and showed superior ball movement.

• The offense, with the free-wheeling Marbury and young Wade running it, was out of sorts, committing three shot clock violations, struggling against the Italian zone and turning it over 23 times.

"I really question whether the basic basketball knowledge of Team USA and the limited time Larry Brown has to get them on the same page is enough to win a gold medal," said Ric Bucher, who covers the NBA for ESPN. "I won't be surprised if it isn't."

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