BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro Larry Brown's face turned redder and redder as he lamented the demise of American basketball, the disinterest of Gen X and the dangers of overconfidence.
To say Brown was at his wit's end in the wee hours Friday would only begin to describe his feelings.
''They don't get it,'' he said repeatedly, shaking his head in a mixture of disgust and foreboding.
When someone suggested the U.S. Olympic team could lose by 20 points in its exhibition game against Serbia-Montenegro, Brown didn't blanch.
''It might be like that at halftime,'' he said.
It wasn't. On Friday night at Belgrade Arena, his team finally played some defense and managed to look inspired in a 78-60 victory over the defending world champions. Brown even had a bounce in his step as he walked down the hallway from the interview area to the locker room, his team giving him hope that its worst days might already be behind them.
''We just keep getting better,'' LeBron James said. ''As time wears on, we are becoming more of a team.''
But Brown is never satisfied, never entirely happy. He accentuated the negative before grudgingly acknowledging the positive.
''We still turned it over. We still didn't get into a lot of things, but we played hard and we tried to do what was right. And I think that was a significant step,'' he said.
Brown is coaching a team he didn't bargain for, a collection of youngsters who could have used another four years to prepare for their roles as national team players.
What he had in mind a year ago was Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd feeding the ball to Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett and Elton Brand, while he sat at the helm of a U.S. team that re-established itself as the class of the sport.
Instead, he retained just three holdovers from the squad that qualified for the Olympics last summer in Puerto Rico. Injuries, security fears and disinterest knocked out the best players, leaving Brown with a kiddie corps more versed in body art and entourage management than in the nuances of ball movement or weak-side help defense.
''We don't have the team we expected to have,'' has been Brown's stock comment to anyone questioning what the expectations should be for a country that has gone 109-2 since head coach Joseph Needles set sail for Berlin in 1936 the first year men's basketball was an Olympic sport.
Brown himself was a member of the 1964 team that won the gold medal in Tokyo, and he would have been an assistant coach on the 1980 team that boycotted the Moscow Olympics because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
He says one of his fondest memories was when Antonio McDyess removed his gold medal after the U.S. team's 2000 victory in Sydney and placed it around Brown's neck because coaches didn't receive golds.
That was no easy victory. If anything, those games illustrated how much the world has caught up to the United States in the 12 years since the Dream Team stormed through the Barcelona Games. How else to explain a two-point semifinal victory over Lithuania and a 10-point win over France in the final?
Athens promises to be even tougher, and Brown feels he's one of the few who recognizes that.
When the U.S team gathered in Jacksonville, Fla., for training camp late last month, he was aghast when Carmelo Anthony casually guaranteed a gold medal.
''They are the best team in the world,'' Brown said, referring to Serbia-Montenegro, which won the World Championship in Indianapolis in 2002 when the Americans finished sixth after losses to Argentina, Yugoslavia and Spain.
U.S. fans may call it an aberration, but Brown knows better.
Last week's humiliating exhibition loss to Italy and the last-second victory over Germany a team that didn't even qualify for Athens has exposed the reality of where the United States stands in the basketball universe.
The last thing Brown wants is for it to hit bottom on his watch.
It remains to be seen whether he'll connect well enough with a team of neophytes who are just starting to comprehend the difficulty they'll face in trying to re-establish America as the world leader in hoops.
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