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Argentina cagers usher in new world order

Alan Crosby | August 29, 2004 20:50 IST

A new world order emerged in the men's Olympic basketball tournament, one where U.S. dominance in the sport the Americans invented is no longer a given.

By sending NBA players to the Olympics in 1992, the league hoped to help the development of basketball around the globe.

That process reached its fruition in Athens with Argentina's gold medal victory over Italy on Saturday evening.

NBA Commissioner David Stern always said he thought the Americans would one day lose at the Olympics despite the NBA players. But he was always quick to add he hoped it would not happen "on my watch".

But Stern and other officials could only sit and watch as the Americans lost. Not once. Not twice. But three times before salvaging some pride with a bronze medal game victory.

The poor showing cannot only be explained by the fact that the U.S. team had been weakened through a rash of withdrawals by first-choice players for a variety of reasons.

For sure, the participation of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Shaquille O'Neal would have helped. But this team still had all-stars such as Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson, and talent with the likes of Richard Jefferson, Stephon Marbury, Shawn Marion, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.

But it was evident from the start when Puerto Rico opened the tournament with a 19-point win over the Americans that team play and outside shooting -- hallmarks of the international game -- were just as good, if not better, outside the U.S. than they were in the home of the NBA.

"Shooting is a lost art (in the U.S.)," lamented U.S. coach Larry Brown as his team lost more games in Athens than the U.S. had lost combined in the past 68 years of Olympic play.

Stern told reporters he was delighted with the rise of the game globally, that this was a wake-up call for his nation and how to choose teams and how development programmes are run.

With more than 80 NBA players from foreign countries and the tournament dominated by Argentina's Manu Ginobili, Spain's Pau Gasol and China's Yao Ming, the days of throwing together an all-star team two weeks before the Games are likely gone.

Argentina's team played together for years, and it showed time and again in Athens. It also was clear that fundamental skills such as shooting, moving without the ball, and passing are not being taught in the U.S., where the dunk reigns supreme and individual play is stressed over the team concept.

"The U.S. still has more depth than anyone, and the NBA is the best league in the world," said Lithuanian guard Sarunas Jasikevicius. "But teams now take the court on a more level footing, they are no longer in awe and just happy to be there. We know the game just as well."

Athens will go down in history as the Games where an NBA propelled U.S. team lost in basketball. The Americans have to hope it goes down as a turning point in the sport's development in its birthplace.

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