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P.R. Basketball Team Competes For One Of Three Olympic Berths In Americas Qualifier

By Gabrielle Paese

August 22, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The most important basketball in the Americas (NBA season notwithstanding) is being played in San Juan's Roberto Clemente Coliseum now through Aug. 31. Ten teams in this continent, from Canada down to Brazil, are vying for three Olympic Games berths at Athens 2004 in this hemisphere's Olympic Qualifier.

The United States is here with a Dream Team of NBA players, including Sixers guard Allen Iverson, Spurs center Tim Duncan and Toronto Raptors swingman Vince Carter. Argentina is here with virtually the same team that won a silver medal last year at the World Championships in Indianapolis. Canada brought Dallas Mavericks star Steve Nash and the U.S. Virgin Islands is led by Raja Bell. Between the 10 teams are a total of 20 NBA players -- Uruguay is the only team without NBA talent in its roster.

The Americas Olympic Qualifier comes just days after the close of the XIV Pan American Games in the Dominican Republic. Pan Am Games basketball used to be the ultimate expression of talent in this hemisphere. The 11-day Olympic Qualifier hosted by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) in San Juan illustrates just how much more power the international sports federations now have over the International Olympic Committee and its national Olympic committees (NOCs). Of the eight teams that competed in Pan Am Games basketball, only two sent their top players. USA Basketball fielded a team of college students -- Argentina and Brazil also sent younger players. Puerto Rico rested its top guns, including Jose "Piculin" Ortiz, Rolando Hourruitiner and Eddie Casiano. No one pretended for even a minute that Pan Am Games basketball was more important than Olympic qualifying.

For basketball and many other international sports federations, the Pan Am Games are no longer a road to the Olympics. Of the 35 sports played in Santo Domingo, only 15 were Olympic qualifiers. Basketball was not one of them. They included boxing, equestrian, field hockey, modern pentathlon, shooting, team handball, triathlon and water polo. With the exception of amateur boxing, none were marquee sports. Track and field has its premier event, the World Championships, later this month in Paris while swimming held its own world championships last month in Barcelona, Spain. These events have greater drawing power, better sponsorship and TV deals superior to those held by the Pan Am Games.

Where the NBA players go, so go the fans and FIBA is well aware of the connection. After a dismal sixth-place finish at the World Championships last year in Indianapolis and a fourth-place finish at the Pan Am Games (the U.S. was shut out of the medals for the first time since 1971), USA Basketball is here to save face.

Sixers guard Iverson said he's aware that the rest of the world is out to find the weak links in the U.S. team armor.

"[Beating the teams here] is going to take the same thing they're bringing to the table," said Iverson. "It's the same thing we have to do. We have to leave our egos at the door and put that game together."

Iverson and his teammates are hoping to put together something decidedly Old School, say, circa 1992 when the original Dream Team (with Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson) first qualified for the Barcelona Olympics and subsequently shut out all challengers.

"Ever since they made the Dream Team [in 1992] I've never felt any Dream Team could be beaten," said Iverson, who admits he hasn't watched much international basketball in his 28 years. "You see a lot of international players in the NBA now and you can't underestimate them. But they'd better watch out because we're out to prove we're the best in the world."

Head coach Larry Brown has taken no chances with big egos this time around. After losing to Spain at the 2002 Worlds, the worst showing ever by a U.S. team of NBA players at a major international tournament, Brown convoked what amounted to a training camp last week in New York for the U.S. team. NBA players who normally wouldn't share the ball with their mothers have been fully indoctrinated: There is no "I" in team.

"In international basketball, off the ball is very physical and on the ball they call everything," said Brown before the start of the tournament. "The rules are so different [from the NBA], but it's good. It promotes team basketball."

San Antonio Spurs center Tim Duncan, who first played for the U.S. in 1996 and was on the 1999 Olympic qualifying team that finished undefeated (coincidentally in San Juan), agreed.

"International basketball has improved from year to year. A lot of my teammates are international players and they know how to put this together because they've been playing together in the summers for years," said Duncan. "It takes a lot of teamwork, sacrifice and an understanding of the game. They're already advanced as teammates."

In addition to Iverson, Duncan, and Carter, the U.S. team also includes Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal, Ray Allen, Mike Bibby, Kenyon Martin, Elton Brand, Richard Jefferson, Jason Kidd and Nick Collison.

The U.S. is still the overwhelming favorite to win here. The last time the U.S. qualified for the Olympics in 1999, the NBA squadron went undefeated, winning 10 games in 11 days. But the 2002 Worlds, with Yugoslavia winning the gold, proved the United States has to watch its back.

"The guys who came here to play on this team have put their egos aside. They're here for one goal, to win the gold," said Duncan. "We're still on the top of the world. We're just here to prove that."

Pride is not at stake for host team Puerto Rico. The island quintet has set its sights on second or third place -- the last time Puerto Rico qualified for an Olympics was 1996 in Atlanta. Argentina is just as hungry. FIBA allotted just two qualifying slots to the Americas for Sydney in 2000 -- the winners were the United States and Canada.

This time around, the 10 teams participating are Canada, United States, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. All of the teams earned trips here via regional qualifiers.

Ortiz heads up Puerto Rico's team. At 38, some may consider he's past his prime, yet Ortiz knows international basketball better than most players 10 years younger. Carlos Arroyo (Utah Jazz) and Daniel Santiago (Milwaukee Bucks) bring more NBA experience. Shariff Fajardo, Larry Ayuso, Rick Apodaca, Bobby Joe Hatton, Richie Dalmau, Rolando Hourruitiner, Eddie Casiano, Jorge Rivera and Antonio "Puruco" Latimer round out the squad coached by Julio Toro.

Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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