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Before arriving in Athens the US men's basketball team had lost just twice in cold war encounters against the Soviet Union in 109 Olympic matches. Since arriving in the Greek capital, they have doubled their losses in less than two weeks without doubt the most impressive statistic of the team's disappointing Olympic campaign so far.

Although the defeats against Puerto Rico and Lithuania have prepared the US public for what might happen in Thursday's quarter-final against Spain, losing would still be seen as one of the greatest failures in the history of US sport.

Some commentators already argue that what they have witnessed not just the defeats, but also lacklustre performances against Greece and Australia signify an end of civilisation as they know it. “One hundred and thirteen years ago, an American resident invented basketball. Sunday night, 12 Americans just about killed it off,” wrote one after the Puerto Rico match.

This US squad is not of the same calibre as the 1992 “Dream Team” in Barcelona that boasted such stars as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, but it is still made up of 12 players who make their (very good) livings in the National Basketball Association the best basketball league in the world. And the idea that the US team even an understrength, ill-prepared one would not win the Olympic gold medal is inconceivable to some.

“Basketball arrogance” is how this is viewed. A failure to recognise that the rest of the world has caught up and that countries such as Spain, which boasts just one NBA player, are capable of producing very good sides.

The Spaniards have played five and won five at these Games, emerging as serious gold medal contenders. Defensively strong, they have forwards such as Jorge Garbajosa and Pau Gasol plus guard Rudy Fernandez who can all contribute points.

More tellingly, the Spanish will have seen how other teams in the competition have employed zone defences that have preventing the US from winning fouls that would give point-scoring opportunities and restricted them to hopeful three-point shots from outside the area, a part of the game where the US has been woeful.

The Spanish will also have noted how difficult the members of the latest “Dream Team” have found it to break down these defensive moves.

“The world has improved a lot,” said US coach Larry Brown, almost suggesting that his country does not occupy the same planet. “No game can be taken lightly.”

Brown has, at different times, bemoaned the death of the art of shooting in the NBA; the inexperience of some of his players (the average age is 23); and the absence of stars such as former LA Lakers centre Shaquille O'Neal who chose not to play.

Then after the Lithuania defeat, Brown talked about how his players lacked the passion and team spirit found in other international teams. “I envy international teams,” said Brown, casting envious glances at players showing passion for their team-mates, their country, their sport. “It's a beautiful thing that we are missing.”

That lack of passion is bluntly explained by one US journalist in Athens who said: “We don't have the communists to beat any more.”

The 1988 defeat the last Olympic match between the US and Soviet Union prompted a rule change that allowed professionals to play in the Olympics. Until two weeks ago that had ensured US success.

Should the unthinkable happen on Thursday and the US lose, it is difficult to see how the rules could be adapted again.

However, the US basketball team will be able to console themselves with the fact that, unlike Iraq's Olympians, they are unlikely to feature in a George Bush re-election campaign. He would not want to be associated with such failure.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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