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In nightmarish start, U.S. stunned, 92-73


ATHENS - The arena was half-empty when the game began, then word spread. People began filtering in, eager to see if it was really happening.

By halftime, Helliniko Indoor Arena was filling up. By the end of the game, you would have sworn the entire island of Puerto Rico had shown up to see sports history.

"We shocked the world!" guard Roberto Hatton screamed.

Puerto Rico embarrassed the United States, 92-73, in the Americans' opening game of the Olympic men's basketball tournament. The loss didn't ruin the U.S. team's medal chances, but it was a huge blow to whatever basketball ego Uncle Sam has left.

"I'm humiliated, said U.S. coach Larry Brown. "Not for the loss. I can always deal with wins and losses. I'm disappointed because I had a job to do as a coach and I don't think we did it."

People knew the world was catching up with the United States. Now one of its own territories has zoomed past, at least for one very convincing night.

It was worst Olympic loss ever for the United States, and only the third in 112 games. It was also the first defeat since NBA players started the Dream Team concept in 1992.

That dream is definitely over, fully exposed by a team with a 41-year-old starting center.

The United States was afflicted with terrible shooting, lax defense and little fight, signs of a team that still expects to win merely by showing up.

"You can coach X's and O's," Brown said. "You shouldn't have to coach effort. From early on with a lot of these young kids, they didn't have a clue what was in store for us."

Puerto Rico's defense engulfed center Tim Duncan and dared the U.S. team to make jumpers. The Americans hit three of 24 three-point tries, which led to this gold medal of an understatement: "I don't think outside shooting is one of their strengths," said center Daniel Santiago.

Duncan and Allen Iverson led the United States with 15 points each, though the best player on the court yesterday makes about $25 million less a year than their combined NBA salaries. Guard Carlos Arroyo, a part-time starter with the Utah Jazz last season, had 24 points and seven assists for Puerto Rico.

"We wanted to show that Puerto Rican basketball deserved a little more respect," he said.

It's a little hard for a team of young NBA stars to take a team with 41-year-old Jose Ortiz seriously. The Americans also beat Puerto Rico five times in the past 13 months. But the United States missed 16 straight three-pointers after Lamar Odom made the first of the game.

While the Americans often jacked up their first open shots, Puerto Rico looked as if it had invented the sport. It led 49-27 at halftime, at which point the United States had 12 turnovers and seven assists. If Brown was looking for team basketball, he got it. Everybody on the American team was bad.

"We didn't talk on defense," Iverson said. "We didn't help each other out."

Why? "They wanted it more than us," Dwyane Wade said. "I don't know why."

The closest the United States got was at 69-61 with 6:11 left. American flags started to wave, hundreds of fans started yelling "Puerto Rico! Puerto Rico!" and the brand-new Greek arena felt like a gym on Tobacco Road. Then Arroyo banked in a three-pointer, and the "USA! USA!" chants fizzled.

"That was a lucky shot," Arroyo said.

Maybe so, but there was nothing fake about the win. The United States needs to finish in the top four of its six-team bracket to reach the quarterfinals, and one loss won't devastate those chances.

But after a shaky pre-Olympic tour, you wonder whether yesterday was an aberration or a trend in a tournament that appears well-balanced, as evidenced by Argentina's 83-82 win yesterday over medal favorite Serbia-Montenegro on a catch-and-shoot bank shot at the buzzer by Manu Ginobili.

Next up for the Americans is Greece tomorrow, and Helliniko should be wild that night.

"This historical victory of my country doesn't mean that the USA's magic has gone," Ortiz said.

Maybe Ortiz should become a diplomat. Yesterday, the real message was brutally clear.

The basketball times aren't just changing. They may have passed the United States by.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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