U.S. must adjust to international rules

Posted: Tuesday, August 12, 2003

NEW YORK Tracy McGrady, a newcomer to international basketball, was given a pop quiz: How do you call a timeout?

''Put your hands together like this?'' McGrady answered, forming the shape of a ''T.''

Wrong, Tracy, you can't call a timeout. None of the players can.

''The coach has to call a timeout? That shows you how much I know about international play,'' McGrady said. ''I'm clueless about it.''

McGrady will become less clueless over the next several days as the players on the U.S. Olympic qualifying team are schooled in the differences between international and NBA rules.

Aside from timeouts, there are other rules that permit basket interference, restrict substitutions and limit the number of jump balls to two per game.

''As I was telling the guys today, it's almost like it's a different sport,'' U.S. coach Larry Brown said.

In the coming days, Brown will step down from the teaching lectern and turn things over to Sean Ford, the USA Basketball assistant executive director who is well-versed in the rules set by FIBA, the sport's international governing body.

McGrady has never played under international rules, which also call for a smaller court (by 2 feet, 2 inches), a wider lane (trapezoidal rather than rectangular), a shorter game clock (40 minutes instead of 48), a less difficult 3-point distance (20 1/2 feet vs. the NBA's 23 feet, 9 inches) and the absence of any illegal defense rules.

''The timeout one is tricky. The substitutions are tricky, the officiating is different. It's just a totally different game,'' said Tim Duncan, who was a member of the 1999 qualifying team.

The lack of a basket interference rule allows anyone to touch the ball after it has hit the rim, even if it is still in the cylinder. What would be called defensive goaltending in the NBA is allowed under FIBA rules, and Ford took particular pride in recalling how, during the recent Pan American Games, Rickey Paulding of Missouri plucked a would-be basket off the rim, saving two points in what became a one-point U.S. victory over Argentina.

American players have historically had difficulty with the rule because they have always been taught to leave the ball alone until it caroms away from the rim.

''It's nearly impossible to switch your mind to do that,'' Duncan said. ''You're so used to protecting yourself and staying away from the rim, but those guys internationally they do it so well. Even if the ball goes straight in they're slamming their head on the rim to make sure.''

Then there is the matter of the referees, who are usually as unpredictable as they are unapproachable. In last year's gold medal game between Argentina and Yugoslavia at the World Championships, the game was decided in large part by an egregious non-call at the end of regulation.

''FIBA refs, you never know them or get a feel for what they're going to call,'' Jason Kidd said. ''With the language, they might not speak any (English). They might understand it, but they might not speak it and that could be one of the toughest barriers.''

The U.S. team will bring two FIBA referees, one from Brazil; the other from Puerto Rico, to practice beginning Tuesday to help the players get accustomed to the different officiating.

FIBA has adopted three rules changes that will go into effect at this year's Olympic qualifiers:

eliminating 24-second violations for missed shots when the shot clock buzzer sounds as the ball is in flight.

eliminating the rule that limited coaches to one timeout in each of the first three quarters, switching to two first-half timeouts and three in the second half.

eliminating jump balls, except at the start of each half, and going to the alternate possession rule.

Before they focus on the rules, Brown wants his team to concentrate on playing the right way. He interrupted a controlled scrimmage Monday to upbraid Mike Bibby for hoisting a long jumper from the side.

''If I'm your teammate, I don't want you taking that shot,'' Brown said. ''We've got to get fouled or get layups. Try to do that.''

Teaching the newcomers the rules and getting the team to mesh as a unit are two of the tasks facing Brown as the team prepares for the Olympic qualifying tournament beginning Aug. 20 in Puerto Rico.

''Most important, and it sounds simplistic, is we have to have the realization that it is a different basketball game,'' assistant coach Gregg Popovich said.

''When we're on offense we have to realize they (the defense) are all sagged in the lane. There's no illegal D, there's no openings anywhere, they're all just hanging in there, which means ball and people movement are the keys. And in the (NBA), ball and people movement are at a premium. You do that and it's a miracle.''

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