ATHENS, Greece -- The quality of the officiating at the
Olympics has so troubled Larry Brown that he may just have his team
play the wrong way.
The U.S. coach whose mantra is to "play the right way" was on
the verge of being talked into something he despises -- playing a
zone defense -- in Thursday's quarterfinal against Spain. The voices
calling for change belonged to assistant coaches Gregg Popovich,
Oliver Purnell and Roy Williams.
"Pop and Oliver and Roy are bugging me about playing zone
because of the potential for foul trouble," Brown said. "I hate
zone, but I understand what they're saying. It depends on how they
referee the game. I can't tell you how it's going to be called, but
I can't even comprehend some of the things I've seen."
The refereeing has often been poor throughout the tournament,
with the U.S. staff most upset by a series of calls during the
fourth quarter of the Americans' opening round loss to Lithuania,
when Lithuania attempted 14 free throws and the Americans shot just
"That's why you've got to play perfect," Brown said.
The U.S. team's final practice Wednesday at the American College
of Greece had the feel of the last day of school, the players
munching pepperoni pizza and lounging on benches in the shade
before boarding their team bus that bears a Greek flag in the rear
Expectations for the U.S. team have been lowered so much that a
sports betting parlor in Belgrade listed Spain as a 3-point
favorite. The Spanish team went undefeated in the preliminary round
and won all of its pre-Olympic tuneup games.
Brown plans to shorten his playing rotation, which likely will
mean less time -- or none -- for Carmelo Anthony.
"He's not playing, he knows there's nothing he can do about
it," teammate LeBron James said. "For what reason I can't tell
you, and he couldn't tell you if you asked him the same.
"As a friend and teammate of his, I'm just trying to keep his
How much spirit the Americans have left could be a big factor in
their most important game of the Olympics. Some of the players have
seemed beaten down at times, Brown has criticized the team
regularly, and a quartet of players -- James, Anthony, Allen Iverson
and Stephon Marbury -- has found various ways to frustrate the
"I had no idea what I was getting into," James said. "I just
wanted to be on the Olympic team and have the experience.
Everything on the court I did not expect, but I think I'd do it
The team's best player, Tim Duncan, has seemed aloof, betraying
emotion only when officials have called questionable fouls against
him or failed to blow their whistles when he has gotten hacked.
Fans back in America have already branded the team failures for
losing to Puerto Rico and Lithuania, doubling the number of losses
previous Olympic teams compiled over 68 years.
"For us, we don't worry about what everyone else says," James
said. "We have one job, to win the gold medal, but we don't think
it's a failure if we don't accomplish that."
Some have suggested the dearth of superstars on the American
roster has brought them less respect from the officials.
"There could be some truth to that," Brown said. "Everyone
always talks about the 1992 team, but you look at the 1996 team,
the centers were (Hakeem) Olajuwon, Shaq (Shaquille O'Neal) and
David Robinson, and the power forwards were (Charles) Barkley and
(Karl) Malone, and I imagine every referee knew those guys. Now you
look at our team and it's a lot different. The only one of the big
guys they look at and probably say 'Hey, wow' is Timmy Duncan, and
I don't see him getting a lot of respect."
Should the Americans defeat Spain, they would face the
Argentina-Greece winner in the semifinals Friday night. A loss
would relegate the Americans to the seventh-place game Saturday
morning against the loser of the Lithuania-China match.
"We've gotten better," Brown said. "I don't know if it's good
enough, but we've gotten better."