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U.S. remains heavy favorites
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network)- The sport of basketball was first played in 1891, at Springfield College, Massachusetts. Dr. James Naismith, invented basketball from throwing a ball of paper into a basket.

As basketball developed into a sport, rules were implemented and the equipment was improved. Basketball first gained popularity in the United States, and then gained soon after it was attracting attention internationally. In 1935, the first European Basketball Championship was organized in Geneva, on outdoor courts. The World Basketball Championships were first held in Buenos Aires in 1950. In 1949 the American National Basketball Association - the NBA - was founded.

Basketball made its debut at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis as a display sport. Naismith threw the jump ball for the inaugural game. The gold medal for this first Olympic Basketball event was won by the United States, which defeated Canada, 19-8, in the championship game.

Men's Olympic basketball had been dominated by the USA for 36 years, until the USSR defeated them in a highly contested game in 1972. The Yugoslavian team won the gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, which were boycotted by the USA, while the Soviet team went on to prevail once more at the 1988 Seoul Games.

After the Seoul Games in 1988 the participation of professional players came to fruition. A vote taken at the FIBA world conference in Munich in 1989 abolished the distinction between amateur and professional players, which allowed some of the best players in the world to participate in the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Each game for the men and women will last 40 minutes and they are divided into four quarters of 10 minutes each. A player will be disqualified from a game after five fouls. There is a 24-second shot clock.

There are 12 teams, including the United States that will compete in the men's competition. The squads are divided into two groups, with the first four teams of each group qualifying for the quarterfinals.

Group A will consist of Argentina, China, Italy, New Zealand, Serbia & Montenegro and Spain. Argentina and Serbia & Montenegro will be the favorites to qualify for the quarterfinals, while the final two spots are tough to call.

Group B, which has the heavily-favored United States in it, has Angola, Australia, Greece, Lithuania and Puerto Rico.

Women's basketball was introduced into the Olympics at the 1976 Montreal Games. The first tournament was won by the USSR.

There are 12 teams, including the United States that will compete in the women's basketball competition. The squads are divided into two groups. Group A is made up of Russia, Nigeria, Japan, Greece, Australia and Brazil, while Group B, which has the United States, consists of China, Spain, Czech Republic, Korea and New Zealand.

Larry Brown
Larry Brown will try and lead the USA to the gold.
MEN

AMERICAN OUTLOOK

The United States, which captured the gold in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, will be the heavy favorite to once again walk away with top honors.

Guard Allen Iverson, who plays for the Philadelphia 76ers, and forward Tim Duncan, who is a member of the San Antonio Spurs, headline a talented roster for the Americans. Mike Bibby of the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns' forwards Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire, LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks guard Stephon Marbury, Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony and Charlotte Bobcats rookie forward Emeka Okafor are some of the other stars that will represent the United States.

Detroit head coach Larry Brown, who won his first NBA Championship as the general of the Pistons will try and lead the USA to the gold. Brown's assistants will be Gregg Popovich, who is the head coach of the Spurs, Clemson University's Oliver Purnell, and Roy Williams of the University of North Carolina.

Since 1992 when NBA players were made eligible for the Olympics, the USA has won 24 straight Olympic hoops contests to extend its overall win streak to 25. That includes a victory in the 1988 bronze medal game. The Americans have won three straight gold medals and historically have dominated competition, claiming gold medals in 12 of the 14 Games in which it has participated. In fact, the USA has compiled an incredible 109-2 record in Olympic play.

On paper, the Americans should cruise to the gold. The team that has been assembled will be extremely dominant if it plays Brown's defense first philosophy. The USA has a lot of scorers that are also very athletic. They should run all over their opponents and should be able to win every contest by double-digits.

Yet, Brown knows his team full of NBA stars will have to learn to adjust to the style of international play under FIBA rules.

"In a shortened game you have a hard time managing personnel, so we have to have guys that understand their roles and don't get caught up in playing time," Brown said. "The other thing is we don't have nearly the time to prepare that other people have and we should understand that. These guys have such long seasons. The fact we won't be together as a team the way Lithuania, Argentina and Spain and all these other powers that have played together for years and years in great competition is a disadvantage."

It seems the international competition is catching up with the Americans. In 1992 the Dream Team won its eight games by a whopping 43.8 point margin. In 1996 that slipped to 32.3 points and four years ago the margin of victory was 21.6 points. Lithuania nearly upset the United States in the semifinals in 2000, but missed a three-pointer at the buzzer as the Americans rallied to hold on for an 85-83 triumph.

"The competition is really high," Anthony said. "Everybody is on center stage with over a billion people watching. I know everybody says we have a young team, but at the same time we have a lot of young talent that can play."

The bottom then fell out for Team USA in the 2002 FIBA World Championship, finishing in sixth place. However, the Americans returned to winning in the summer of 2003 with a perfect 10-0 mark in winning the gold medal at the Americas Olympic Qualifying Tournament, winning by an average of 30.9 points.

INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

NBA superstar Manu Ginobili leads the Argentine squad. Argentina's best finish ever at the Olympics was in 1952 when they came in fourth. Center Ruben Wolkowyski, a former NBA player, along with 6'10" Fabricio Oberto, 6'7" Andres Nocioni and 6?9" Luis Scola offer other inside options for Argentina. Former Detroit Pistons and Temple University guard Juan "Pepe" Sanchez runs the backcourt.

China could also present some problems for the United States as they have what's call the "great walking wall" in Houston Rockets 7'6" center Yao Ming, 6'11" Mengke Bateer and 7'1" Wang Zhizhi. Hu Weidong is China's three-point threat, but the inside play will be the focus of the Chinese, whose best Olympic finish was eighth place in 1996.

Australia and Lithuania could give the USA the most competition out of this field of teams. The Aussies have four fourth-place finishes in Olympic competition and lost to Lithuania in the bronze medal game four years ago. Australia is expected to return three of its top six scorers from the 2000 Olympics, Shane Heal, Chris Anstey and Sam Mackinnon.

Lithuania, bronze medalists in the last three Olympics, are probably most remembered for throwing that scare in the 2000 U.S. team. Most recently, Lithuania rolled through the 2003 European Championship impressively, finishing a perfect 6-0 to earn gold and qualify for a trip to Athens. Look out for 6'3" guard Arvydas Macijauskas to cause some damage with his outside shooting, while 7'1" Eurelijus Zukauskas clogs the inside blocks.

Current NBA players Carlos Arroyo and Daniel Santiago are expected to lead Puerto Rico.

Pau Gasol, who stands 7-0, is one the most promising young stars in the NBA, will help guide Spain, which won the silver medal in 1984.

WOMEN

AMERICAN OUTLOOK

The United States is the favorite to capture the gold in the women's competition. The Americans captured the gold in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and will have six players who played on that team participating in the Athens Games.

Returning from the 2000 gold medal squad, are forwards Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Yolanda Griffith. Guards Dawn Staley and Katie Smith were also on the 2000 gold medal winning team and will compete in this year's games.

Guard Diana Taurasi, who won three NCAA championships at the University of Connecticut, will experience Olympic competition for the first time. In 2001, Taurasi was a member of the USA Junior World Championship squad that posted a 6-1 record and earned the bronze medal. Taurasi joins former UConn teammate Swin Cash on the U.S. squad.

"It's going to be exiciting to play with Sue (Bird) and Diana (Taurasi) again," said Cash about teaming up on the USA Senior National Team with her former UConn teammates. "We play really well together, we know each other's game. When we're on the court there's definitely a comfort level with those two. But I've also grown comfortable with the other players on the team. (Sue, Diana and I) come from a program where every year, the goal was to win, so I think we expect to win a gold medal and I'll do everything humanly possible that I can to help the USA team persevere over in Greece."

The American women will be coached by Van Chancellor of the WNBA's Houston Comets. In 2002, Chancellor guided the United States to a gold medal and perfect 9-0 record at the 2002 FIBA World Championship.

Taurasi spoke recently about the adjustment going up against international competition.

"Obviously there's an adjustment from playing in college to the WNBA," taurasi said. "And now when you're talking about the Olympics, you're talking about the best players in there respective countries. That's going to be an adjustment. The game's only difference is going up another level and there's that certain adjustment period that you have to learn."

The U.S. women have won four golds (1984, '88, '96, 2000), a silver (1976) and a bronze (1992) since entering Olympic play and are 34-3 all-time at the Summer Games. The American women are 34-0 in the last four majors international competitions (1996 & 2000 Olympics, 1998 & 2002 World Championship) and has been ranked No. 1 in the world since 1996.

INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

Australia and Brazil will likely be the biggest threats to the United States in women's play. Australia won the silver medal in 2000 and bronze in 1996. Brazil was the silver medalist in 1996 and captured the bronze four years ago.

Lauren Jackson, a forward/center for the Seattle Storm in the WNBA, leads the Australian squad. The No. 1 pick in the 2001 WNBA draft, Jackson started all nine games in the 2002 World Championship and led all competitors in scoring after averaging 23.1 ppg.

Brazil was beaten 111-87 by the Americans in the 1996 gold medal game. Janeth dos Santos Arcain, who will be in her fourth Olympics, played in the WNBA for the Houston Comets and helped the team to four titles.

Korea's women won a silver medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles but they haven't been to the podium in the competition since. Yet they rose from a 10th place showing in 1996 to fourth in 2000.

By Warren Blatt, Olympic Contributing Editor

 

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