Team USA moves toward redemption

Posted: Tuesday, September 02, 2003

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico Something strange happened on the medal stand: The Americans abandoned it just as their national anthem was played.

''Nobody was really directing us. They just said go up there and that was it, we were on our own,'' Jermaine O'Neal said. ''We didn't know when to raise the trophy. We didn't know when to do anything.''

Forgive the U.S. team for its breach of international basketball etiquette Sunday night. After all, they're not used to winning.

About an hour after they lost to Spain last summer in the fifth-place game at the World Championships in Indianapolis, the limousines were lining up outside their hotel to transport the Nightmare Team outta there.

Among those U.S. players was O'Neal, one of only two holdovers on the 2003 Olympic qualifying team.

''We're the best in the world,'' O'Neal said after the United States defeated Argentina 106-73 Sunday night in the gold medal game at the Tournament of the Americas. ''We wanted to come out and be extremely sharp, give the world something to think about for a year let the rest of the world know that we are for real.''

Yes, they are. Whether they're the best on the planet will be decided next summer.

Let the buildup begin.

''Basically from start to finish of that game, we showed that we are the best,'' Tracy McGrady said. ''We didn't forget what Argentina did to our team last year, so we came out and got a new core of guys. I think that game right there is really going to leave a taste in somebody's mouth.''

It was McGrady's first international tournament, and he was mesmerized by the nationalism.

Before the anthem gaffe, McGrady and several other American players watched in wonder as Argentina's flag-waving, shirtless fans sang a version of the international ''Ole'' chant with a defiant chorus of ''I am Argentinian. It's a feeling, and I can't stop.''

Many of the Americans turned their heads and stared at boisterous, frenzied fans who occupied one section of end zone seats. The chanting and dancing never stopped during the fourth quarter, continuing through the medal ceremony.

''I loved that,'' McGrady said. ''No matter how bad they were getting beat they still were supportive of their team. They take a lot of pride in their country and what those guys out there are doing.''

The U.S. team will bear witness to even more nationalism next summer when they go to Athens and compete against a number of teams that are much stronger than the competition they faced here.

Fans of those nations will be hostile to the Americans, although the players will likely be treated as icons in the athletes' village if the U.S. federation goes forward with plans to house the team there. A final decision will come after a site inspection in November, USA Basketball director Jim Tooley said.

The U.S. team bonded while spending almost a month together in New York and San Juan, peaking in the finale with an awe-inspiring dunking exhibition that Argentina was helpless to stop.

''I think we wanted to send a message to our coaches more than anything,'' McGrady said. ''They kept drilling that Argentina is this and that, and they kept bringing up the past. So this is really a statement game for them.''

Their going-away performance should result in the United States entering Athens as the strong favorite, although not a prohibitive one given the strength of several of the best European teams.

And although they executed and performed to perfection on their final night together in 2003, their qualifying trip showed the U.S. team to be in need of at least one more big man and another outside shooter.

Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant are expected to be on the roster next summer, and Jason Kidd, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Tim Duncan, McGrady and O'Neal also have been guaranteed spots. Vince Carter, a veteran of the 2000 Olympic team, seemed to play more than well enough to earn himself a spot, and Elton Brand the other holdover from the 2002 World Championship team may have done the same.

For now, the enduring memory will be the way they closed the show.

''Considering our opponent, and the last game we played (in Puerto Rico against Argentina, a 94-86 U.S. win), and what they did to us in Indianapolis,'' coach Larry Brown said, ''I've never seen anything like it.''

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