ATHENS, Greece -- They've tried, you know? Team USA came to Athens with suits lecturing them about how to act, how to dress, how not to bang their chests and gloat, how to be complimentary at every pass, how to be a Dream Team of Gentleman.
They were the nice guys after losses to Puerto Rico and Lithuania, smiling although the crowd and refs and press and seemingly everyone back in America wanting to see them return to the States without a medal and as a walking billboard for everything wrong with NBA-style basketball.
"In '92, everyone wanted the Dream Team to win, including the teams they played against," says Lamar Odom. "Everyone wants to see us humbled. There's tension out there."
Well ... ?
The days of the Olympic team acting like guys you'd let date your sister are gone. That schtick is over.
The Yanks beat Spain on Thursday 102-94, and although they finally shot well (Stephon Marbury set a U.S. Olympic record with 31 points) and played good defense, Team USA advanced to the semifinals on Friday with a new aura and message.
They're fed up. Fed up with every fan blindly booing them and cheering the opponents. Fed up with the refs calling a foul every time an American player's fingernail grazes a shooting hand. Fed up with hearing about how fans in the States don't care if they win gold or not.
"Everyone wants them out of the tournament," said Spain's Pau Gasol.
And the Americans know it. So screw the rest of the world.
Screw the wisdom that the United States must rely on Tim Duncan and Carlos Boozer inside because the Americans can't shoot outside. They had been hearing that for more than a week and a half, and they answered by taking 22 3-pointers and hitting 12 of them, six by Marbury.
Screw the refs, who keep whistling the Yanks for Wal-Mart cheap fouls. Duncan, Boozer and Odom didn't change their defense after being in foul trouble in various times during the tournament. Even though Duncan played only 20 minutes, 45 seconds due to first-half foul problems, he came back and played exactly the same way, harassing Gasol into only four fourth-quarter points.
And screw the foreign diplomacy. Team USA coach Larry Brown enraged the living tappas out of Spain coach Mario Pesquera by calling a timeout with only 23 seconds left and the United States up by 12. In the NBA, most fans and coaches wouldn't think twice about it. In Euro ball, calling a timeout up 12 late in the game is like walking to first while watching your home run sail out of the park.
Both coaches yelled at each other after the game and had to be separated by their assistants. In the postgame news conference, Brown and Pesquera had only a seat separating them, and didn't even look at each other. Brown took the first jab, saying he wanted to wave off the timeout but the refs gave it to him anyway. Then, with Pesquera sitting next to him, said that he had tried to explain that to the Spanish coach but found that it was "like arguing with my son."
Pesquera was not happy, and after Brown left said, "I had -- and stress the word 'had' -- a lot of respect for Larry Brown." He continued by saying that "you can't always say sorry" and "Dean Smith would have never done something like that."
You know what Brown did?
He shook it off, basically saying, "Look, I tried to apologize. Pesquera was Bob Knight-angry, and he wouldn't listen. So screw it. I have a semifinal game to prepare for. Later."
Now the entire us-against-the-world cliché is about to come out, so sorry ahead of time, but it's apt. Everyone wants the United States to fail, and Team USA has turned that into motivation.
"We've been together awhile, and we've been through some difficult times," Brown said. "The adversity we've had getting blown out by Italy and Germany, playing so poorly against Puerto Rico, giving the game away against Lithuania, has made us much closer."
Against Spain, the United States was on the verge of another collapse. At the start of the fourth quarter, Team USA led 74-69 but gave up three easy baskets in a row, all inside the paint. The crowd was screaming against the Americans.
But Allen Iverson hit a 3 to temper the crowd some, and the defense stiffened on Spain's next three possessions. On one, Spain's Juan Carlos Navarro took three shots and missed all of them. Soon, Boozer put in a Richard Jefferson miss, Marbury hit another 3, and Duncan tapped in a Dwyane Wade miss. Suddenly it was 87-78 with just more than three minutes to go. "That was the best part of the game for us," U.S. assistant coach Gregg Popovich said. "We could have lost energy or focus, but we didn't."
The Americans played hard against Spain, not only diving for loose balls but throwing elbows and hip checks and bending Spain's will as far as it would go. And the refs noticed it, calling 27 fouls against the Americans to only 18 against Spain. But the United States will take that. "We have a sense of pride," Boozer said. "We're on the biggest stage in the world. We want to win."
It'll continue in the semifinal game against either Greece or Argentina on Friday. The nice-guy stuff is over. There's a gold to win
Whether the world likes them or not.
Seth Wickersham covers the Olympics for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.