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U.S. men may be ripe for upset

Alan Crosby | August 04, 2004 14:48 IST

The men's basketball Olympic gold medal may be ripe for the taking by a number of countries in Athens after a wave of defections left the United States with a young and decidedly weakened team.

The U.S. men, gold medallists in 12 of the 14 Olympics in which they have participated, have compiled a 109-2 win-loss record in Olympic play and are still considered the favourites.

The participation of National Basketball Association (NBA) players since 1992 has made winning even less dramatic with the team going 24-0 on their way to the last three gold medals.

But Lithuania put a chink in American basketball armour in Sydney when they were just one missed shot in the dying seconds away from the sport's biggest upset ever.

That was followed by three losses by the U.S. at the world championships in Indianapolis in 2002, taking away a lot of the intimidation factor past U.S. teams have had.

USA Basketball officials looked for a return of the 40-point wins other NBA all-star teams had run up in international play, cobbling together a star-studded team consisting of Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd, Mike Bibby and Vince Carter.

In qualifying for Athens the team posted 10 consecutive victories by an average of more than 30 points per game.

But a rash of injuries and personal commitments -- along with rumours of security fears -- has left only Duncan and Iverson from the original group and a team with an average age of just 23.6 years including 19-year-old rookie sensation LeBron James and 20-year-old forward Carmelo Anthony.

YOUNG TEAM

"The team we selected to participate in Athens is not quite the same team we're assembling (to actually play in the Games)," said coach Larry Brown, fresh from his first NBA title with the Detroit Pistons and a gold medallist at the 1964 Olympics.

"We have to go from being an All-Star team to a real team in a real short period of time."

Knowing the Americans are fielding a young team should embolden much of the competition, who see this year as a real opportunity to shoot down the top guns.

World champions, the Republics of Serbia and Montenegro, are also weakened with the duo of Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic opting out.

But Predrag Drobnjak of the Los Angeles Clippers and Vladimir Radmanovic of the Seattle Supersonics will lead a stable of strong European-based players, making the team good contenders.

San Antonio Spurs forward Manu Ginobili will play for Argentina, who snapped the U.S.'s 58-game winning streak in Indianapolis on their way to taking a silver medal at the world championship.

The tournament will also see a number of other budding NBA stars boost their teams, including Houston's 23-year-old Yao Ming for China, Utah's 24- year-old Carlos Arroyo for Puerto Rico and Memphis's 23-year-old Pau Gasol for Spain.

USA Basketball recently added five players -- including James, the high school-to-NBA rookie phenomenon who was only seven years old when Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird led the original "Dream Team" to Olympic gold in 1992.


Athens 2004: The Complete Coverage

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