Basketball has been a source of such exaggerated American pride for so long that it was hard not to admire Larry Brown's humility last week when it all sank in a sea of Puerto Rican flags. After the U.S. men's team lost to its little island cousin by an irrefutable 19 points, becoming the first Olympic squad to drop a game since the NBA started packing the team with stars in 1992, coach Brown said, "We got beat in every area. Every area." His mood did not improve following a clumsy 6-point victory over Euro doormat--but home favorite--Greece, and he was hardly buoyant after a 10-point win over Australia: "We've got athletes. They've got basketball players. They've got kids that are truly committed to being part of a team."
Brown, 63, delivered his lines in a voice worn thin from decades of screaming at referees, but he was not angry. Instead he sounded amazed and resigned--like a man who has seen Vesuvius blow its top and knows that in a few moments an empire will be covered in dust. Brown's mood didn't improve after Saturday's 4-point loss to Lithuania, although, thanks to a Greek victory over Angola, his team backed into the medal round. But 12 years after the original Dream Team pulled off the improbable trick of charming its opponents while destroying them by an average of 43.8 points, Brown's U.S. squad is a long shot for gold and has become, unfairly, a fashionable symbol of American hubris. "For the record," says guard Dwayne Wade, "we know we're not the Dream Team."
For a brief moment, it looked as though Athens would be the resting place for numerous chunks of American pride. Venus Williams and Andy Roddick got bounced in tennis, the gymnasts weren't nearly as sparkling as the glitter in their hair, and Michael Phelps looked merely human. Before long, though, the U.S. was sitting in its customary place atop the medal standings, with golds in everything from double trap shooting to road cycling to gymnastics; the swim team alone took 28 medals. While flip turns and double Arabians are cute in a quadrennial sort of way, they do not display the full range of what Americans consider athleticism, nor do they make easy metaphors for national character. That's what home runs and slam dunks are for, and with the baseball team not even qualifying for these Games, the weight of American ego fell on a basketball team that is not very good.
The shortcomings begin with inexperience and extend to basic skills. "They run and jump better than anybody here," said Australian star Shane Heal. "But they're not very good at shooting or passing." After four games the U.S. was shooting just 22% from behind the 3-point arc (their opponents shot 47%), and against Australia the Americans missed 15 outside shots in a row--during warm-ups. The U.S. has the world's best inside player in the heroically shy San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan, but epochs go by without his touching the ball near the rim, where he is almost unstoppable.