Whew! sounds the same in any language. On Wed-nesday, it was uttered by the 15 or so members of the U.S. men's Olympic team the second after Allen Iverson's desperation heave from just across midcourt fell through a basket in Cologne, Germany.
The buzzer-beater may have been dramatic, but it didn't look like much on paper: a 3-point win for basketball's superpower over a German team that didn't even qualify for the Athens Games. And in an exhibition, no less.
Still, a few of the young NBA millionaires celebrated as if they'd just won a trip to Euro Disney. Maybe that's what losing by 17 points to Italy the night before will do to some fragile psyches.
''I think we made progress from last night's game. We've got to continue to do that,'' coach Larry Brown said, ''or it's going to be very difficult in Athens.''
No matter how the results go the rest of the way, this pre-Olympic tour is already a success in one department. Besides finding out what it's like to play in front of hostile crowds, it's giving the young American team chances to learn some useful words in foreign languages. Take, for example, ''allenamento.''
Granted, it sounds like something Iverson would bring back in a suitcase from his travels overseas, a souvenir to commemorate his stint as co-captain of Team USA. But how's this for a coincidence? ''Allenamento'' is Italian for ''practice'' as in roll the balls out on the floor and see if a dozen guys with big heads and bigger wallets can spend a few hours preparing to play like a team when it actually matters.
And if Iverson and the rest of Team USA don't learn how to do that in a hurry, well, at least their next lesson will be a snap.
Can you say ''Arrivederci''?
According to one poll, the number of Americans who still think their NBA countrymen will bring home the gold medal dropped by almost one-quarter, to just south of 50 percent, after the beatdown by Italy. Against the third-best team in Europe, a collection of NBA All-Stars couldn't defend the perimeter or pound the ball inside against a packed-in zone. There was hardly any ball movement, very little leadership and even less respect for the team they were up against. The result was the biggest margin of defeat by an Olympic team since the NBA signed up for patriotic duty a dozen years ago.
Nobody wants to come out and say Team USA took Italy lightly, but there were reports a few players used their pregame drills to work on halfcourt shots. Now it's possible they were just getting ready for Germany. If so, we probably don't want to know what tactics are being planned to beat the really good teams in the Olympic tournament.
The international game is different. It's less about talent and more about teamwork, a concept that must seem foreign to a bunch of players who stand around most nights during a season's worth of NBA games watching each other try to make highlight-reel moves. And because seven big-name veterans declined invitations, this U.S. team is even less about talent than usual. It also has an average age of 23 1/2, meaning it's less experienced in big games, international, exhibition or otherwise.
Iverson called the Italy game ''a wakeup call,'' and maybe he was right. The Americans proved to be a quick study in how the international game is played. Against Germany, they defended better, moved the ball more and played with some poise down the stretch.
But learning on the fly is tough. Learning those same lessons in practice would make life a lot easier, something you can bet Iverson wishes he thought of last Saturday, right about the time he showed up for practice a few minutes late and nearly moved Brown to set his own hair on fire.
Brown saw to it that Iverson shared the captaincy with Tim Duncan, preached endlessly about how the U.S. Olympians would have to play the kind of ball his Detroit Pistons did to upset the L.A. Lakers in this season's NBA Finals relentless defense, unselfish offense and turned over the keys.
So naturally, the next thing Brown had to hand over was a tardy slip. Iverson wasn't the only one to show up late for the 11 a.m. team meeting youngsters LeBron James and Amare Stoudamire arrived just as late and separately but that wasn't what Brown had in mind when he talked about leading by example.
When the coach benched all three late arrivals for a game against Puerto Rico, he was sending a message. But nothing works better than Team USA being embarrassed by a few mop-topped guys who not only looked like Pete Maravich but shot the basketball just as sweetly. Most, if not all of them, finally understand that they are in for a fight.
Because friendly as the locals can seem at times, the one word the Americans won't be hearing anytime soon is ''surrender.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com.
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