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It’s Almost a Nightmare for U.S. Men

I had a dream last night.

The Dream Team lost. The U.S. men’s basketball team was leading by two points in the Olympic semifinals, time was running out, Lithuania’s Sarunas Jasikevicius shot a three-pointer with Antonio McDyess charging at him, the ball went in, and a delirious crowd of 14,653 at the SuperDome, many wearing their tie-dyed Grateful Dead T-shirts, charged onto the floor and carried the winners off on their shoulders.

THE DREAM TEAM LOST!

I said it was a dream. Here’s what really happened Friday night: The U.S. men’s basketball team was leading by two points, time was running out, Lithuania’s Jasikevicius shot a three-pointer with McDyess charging at him, it was an air ball.

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The dream team won, 85-83.

But the Lithuanian kids almost won, and that counts for something, except in their locker room, where they had sat and talked about it at halftime and decided that they could win, that they were going to win.

I don’t know where they got that idea. Maybe it was in their capital city, Vilnius, a decade or so ago, watching their fathers and their uncles and their older brothers take to the streets and stare down Soviet tanks.

They turned them back, winning independence for their Baltic republic after 52 years of Soviet oppression.

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After seeing something like that, you think these Lithuanian kids were going to be intimidated by Vince Carter, Kevin Garnett, Alonzo Mourning and Jason Kidd?

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Well, maybe--a little.

They had lost to the Americans by nine points a few nights before in a preliminary game, and, U.S. Coach Rudy Tomjanovich said, the score could have been closer.

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But the difference was that nobody thought the Dream Team was ever in jeopardy that night, not even the Lithuanians.

“I think we had maybe two players who believed in that first game,” said Donnie Nelson, a scout, consultant, advisor, assistant coach, head cheerleader--whatever you want to call him--for the Lithuanians ever since they gained their independence.

“Tonight we had nine or 10 players who believed.”

Donnie Nelson’s real job is as an assistant coach for the Dallas Mavericks, working for his dad, Don Nelson. He was also working for his father at Golden State when he, Donnie, went to Lithuania to sign a magnificent shooting guard by the name of Sarunas Marciulionis.

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He came back to California with Marciulionis. (That’s where Marciulionis met Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead and gained a sponsor for his national team, but that’s another story.)

Nelson also came back with an appreciation for Lithuania, its people, its culture and its history. He has even picked up some of the language over the years.

One of the things he learned was the story of Frank Lubin, the former UCLA star from Glendale who played for the United States in the first gold-medal basketball team in the 1936 Olympics, then went to his ancestral home in Lithuania and taught his people the game.

“They learned it so well that they would send their club teams down to Moscow and beat the teams from the Red Army and Spartak and everyone in the country would celebrate,” Nelson said.

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“That was the only way they had to strike back against one of the darkest forces in history.”

In 1988, the Soviets won the gold medal in basketball, having upset the pre-Dream Team Americans in the semifinals, and posed for a team picture. Afterward, the four Lithuanians on the team posed for their own picture.

In Barcelona four years later, those four players represented an independent Lithuania. In the bronze-medal game, Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis combined for 56 points and the Lithuanians beat the so-called Unified Team of former Soviet republics, including Russia. Now there was a dream.

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A victory Friday night would have been more consequential everywhere except Lithuania.

It is what the rest of the world has been waiting for since 1992, three years after professionals had been voted into Olympic basketball.

There is a misconception about that vote, a widely held belief that the United States, smarting from its loss in Seoul, commandeered it in order to resume its domination of the sport. Not so. The United States was one of only 13 countries to vote against it, believing that the NBA players would be so dominant that American fans would be bored and tune out, which is exactly what has happened.

Most of the countries didn’t care.

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“If you beat the U.S. in an international tournament, there was always an asterisk by it because you knew they didn’t send their best players,” Nelson said. “This is supposed to be about determining who is the best.”

Besides, the rest of the world had caught up to our college players. It was time to take the next step, which the Lithuanians have almost done.

They still didn’t win, but the Dream Team’s aura--"the wow factor,” Nelson called it--is gone.

Remember in 1992 when players on other teams were more interested in having their pictures taken with Michael and Magic and Larry than challenging them? Even in ’96, many players on other teams were awed by Shaq and Charles and Co.

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No more. If you have talented players--four Lithuanians either play or have played for U.S. colleges and two others are Olympic veterans--and play smart, you can beat this group of Dream Teamers.

Nelson didn’t want to say that the Lithuanians took the United States to school in the game of international basketball, but that’s what they did.

“We’ve got guys who know how to play the game,” he said. “We’re like Wisconsin in last year’s Final Four. We’re like a white-bread suburban team that passes the ball with precision and runs the clock down and creates the open shot with good picks.”

Nelson helped devise the game plan, so you can imagine how he felt when the Lithuanians came within a shot of winning the game.

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Or maybe you can’t.

“If the impossible had happened tonight, I was never going to coach against the United States again,” he said, his voice cracking.

There were too many mixed emotions for him during the second or so that Jasikevicius’ final shot was in the air--mixed between seeing his mission completed in Lithuania and seeing the country that he still believes is far and away No. 1 in basketball, his country, lose.

The shot fell short. But, at least for one night, men’s basketball in the Olympics was fun again.

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Randy Harvey can be reached at his e-mail address: randy.harvey@latimes.com.


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