By Cecil Harris
Puerto Rico Sun
The final score of Puerto Rico 92, United States 73 still shocks those who cling to the outdated notion that U.S. superiority in basketball is a given, somehow part of an American’s birthright. The truth, however, is it doesn’t matter anymore that basketball was created in the mainland U.S.—albeit by a Canadian, Dr. James Naismith—because the days of other teams genuflecting before American squads are long gone.
Finally, the phrase “Dream Team,” as it relates to USA Men’s Olympic Basketball, can be retired for good. The phrase is as anachronistic today as the Soviet Union, amateur athletics and American diplomacy.
On Sunday, August 15, 2004 in Athens, Greece, a team of pampered NBA millionaires with an aversion to defense, perimeter shooting, free-throw shooting and team play was humiliated by a team from Puerto Rico before the eyes of the world. Never before had a U.S. team composed of NBA stars lost in Olympic competition.
But this was no fluke. Puerto Rico exposed the flaws of the U.S. team from start to finish. Led by point guard Carlos Arroyo, who had game-highs with 24 points and 7 assists, Puerto Rico held a 22-point lead at halftime. Despite a plethora of bigger names on Team USA—names like Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, Lamar Odom, LeBron James and Stephon Marbury—Arroyo, a starter for the NBA’s Utah Jazz, was the best player on the court.
August 15 may be forever celebrated in Puerto Rico as Vieques’ Revenge. Vieques is the island bought by the U.S. Navy in the 1940s after which many families and farmers were forced to leave to make way for decades of bombing runs and military practices. The inhumane policy prompted years of protest, and an occasional tear-gassing response from the Navy. Finally, President George W. Bush announced in June 2001 that the Navy would leave the island. According the Web site viequeslibre.org, May 8, 2003 marked the first day on Vieques in more than 60 years that was free of bombing.
The U.S. Navy pushed the people of Vieques around for generations, and USA Basketball lorded over the sports world for just as long. Yet Puerto Rico brought an athletic superpower to its knees. Puerto Rico’s strategy was to force Team USA team to shoot from outside. As Iverson told NBC television after the game, “We don’t want to shoot (from) outside. We want to get easy baskets and run.”
Yet the well-schooled Puerto Rico squad packed in its defense to limit easy baskets and invite shots from the perimeter. Team USA shot a dreadful 35 percent from the field, including an obscene 3-for-24 from 3-point range. That’s 12.5 percent shooting on 3-point shots, despite a three-point semicircle that is 20 feet, 6 inches away in the Olympics as opposed to 23 feet, 9 inches away in the NBA. Quite simply, Puerto Rico forced Team USA to do what it did not want to do and could not do well—shoot from the perimeter.
Other teams will pick up on Puerto Rico’s strategy, which will make it exceedingly difficult for Team USA to win a fourth straight Olympics basketball gold medal.
Team USA first sent NBA players to the Olympics in 1992 after a squad composed of college stars finished third in the 1988 Games. The 1992 team was the only true Dream Team—Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Karl Malone, John Stockton et al. Every member of that team (except Christian Laettner) is in the Basketball Hall of Fame or soon will be. From the team that Puerto Rico dominated on August 15, only Duncan and Iverson are certain to be Hall of Famers.
At least lazy broadcasters and headline writers should no longer refer to just any U.S. grouping of NBA players as a “Dream Team.” Such laziness should have ceased in 2002 when Team USA finished sixth in the World Championships in Indianapolis and the NBA’s arrogant, showboating, trash-talking style went over like lead-based paint.
Many will look at Puerto Rico 92, USA 73 and say the rest of the world has caught up. But strictly in terms of playing basketball as a five-man unit, other teams have passed the U.S.A. Puerto Rico has only two NBA players on its Olympic squad (Arroyo and forward Jose Ortiz), but it played as a team—not as a motley crew of self-indulgent individuals.
No matter what else happens at the 2004 Olympics, the Puerto Rico men’s basketball team made history, humbling the once-invincible Team USA. Only after 40 minutes of game time did Puerto Rico’s dominance end. Only then could Team USA feel a sense of relief. Now they could be left alone. Finally. The people in Vieques know the feeling.
Cecil Harris is a native of Brooklyn, New York, and lives in Yonkers, New York.
Harris is the author of BREAKING THE ICE The Black Experience in Professional Hockey (Insomniac Press, 2003) and the screenplays The Iceman and White Chocolate. Harris worked as a sports journalist for daily newspapers, magazines and an Internet site. Among his many accomplishments in journalism, he covered the National Basketball Association's Indiana Pacers for The Indianapolis Star and the National Hockey League's Carolina Hurricanes for The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina and the New York Rangers and New York Islanders for Newsday.
Harris has covered such major events as the World Series, the American League Division Series, the American League Championship Series, the NBA Finals, the NBA playoffs, the NCAA men's basketball championships, the NCAA Division I football national championship game, the Stanley Cup finals, the Stanley Cup playoffs, the U.S. Open tennis championships, All Star Games in baseball and hockey, the New York City marathon, the Millrose Games and the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.
Harris contributes to sports columns to Puerto Rico Sun.
Check out Harris' website at www.cecilharris.com.