INDIANAPOLIS -- One loss might have been dismissed as an aberration. A second cannot.
Friday was a day of soul-searching for the American basketball community. Losses to Argentina and Yugoslavia at the World Championships have left the U.S. team in the classification round, where it will be determined whether they are the fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth-best team in the world.
"The only thing you can do now is apologize for not coming in and representing the game of basketball the way that you're supposed to," Antonio Davis said. "There are no excuses, there's no reason why we shouldn't have gotten it done.
"Each and every guy is feeling as bad as we should."
Before the losses, U.S. teams were 58-0 when using NBA players in international tournaments. The players and coaches on this team will now carry the stigma of being the first to lose.
The United States sent some very good players to this tournament, but it did not send its best. Jason Kidd and Ray Allen withdrew from the team, citing nagging injuries, and many others declined invitations to play. Among them were Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.
Shaquille O'Neal also was asked, although a foot injury would have prevented him from playing. He is scheduled to have surgery next week.
"The selection committee offered them an invitation and it's their right to play or not play," Michael Finley said. "The guys who did decide to play, we gave up a part of our summer to represent the United States, and we took a lot of pride in doing that."
The USA Basketball selection committee has never placed public pressure on anyone to play.
O'Neal, Garnett, Duncan, Jordan, Kidd and Allen have represented U.S. teams in the past, but Bryant has not.
"It's unfortunate that he hasn't played. He's probably missed something," NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said Friday. "He'll have other opportunities, and hopefully he'll avail himself of them."
Bryant, the NBA's youngest superstar on the league's highest-profile team, declined to play on the 2000 Olympics team because of his wedding plans.
This year, he indicated that he wanted to play for the U.S. team at the 2004 Olympics, but not at the World Championships, NBA vice president Stu Jackson said last month.
Bryant could not be reached for comment. Calls to his agent, Arn Tellem, were not immediately returned.
Whether the presence of Bryant or other players would have prevented the losses is open to debate, but it's also a moot point.
Many players on the other national teams have been together for years developing fundamentals, familiarity and chemistry. They began preparing for the World Championships early this summer, while the U.S. team had just two weeks of practices.
"Coming into this, I don't know if we really realized how important it was to the other teams and how important it should have been to us," Davis said.
Coach George Karl has taken a different approach to coaching the U.S. team than his predecessors.
Rudy Tomjanovich and Lenny Wilkens tried to distribute the playing time equally among the 12 members of the team, but Karl has shortened the rotation.
Raef LaFrentz and Jay Williams have not played outside of garbage time, and Elton Brand spent just 3 minutes on the court against Yugoslavia.
The American team missed all five of its free throws in the fourth quarter Thursday night, with Jermaine O'Neal shooting an airball among his four misses. O'Neal also airballed a foul shot in the loss to Argentina.
"All these other countries, they are bringing their best. We brought our team to this tournament with some of our best," Paul Pierce said. "Hopefully this will be a call for these guys to come out and represent our country.
The winner of the tournament will receive an automatic berth in the 2004 Olympics. The U.S. team will have to qualify next summer at a site to be determined.
Saturday's semifinals are Argentina-Germany and Yugoslavia-New Zealand.
NBC will televise the gold-medal game Sunday.
"I hope the outcome will show people that those countries are getting better," Davis said. "These teams have grown tremendously in a lot of different areas of the game. They're stronger, they're bigger, they're smarter and they're learning how to play at a young age.
"We have to respect that, and our young people of today and our coaches have to go out and teach guys the game of basketball the right way."
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