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Spirited undertaking

Inspired Brown game for challenge

NEW YORK -- Forty years ago in Tokyo, Larry Brown was an athlete at the 1964 Olympics.

He scaled a fence to watch the swimming finals, lent his official credential -- a badge back in those days -- to a pole vaulter who used it to get into a basketball venue, and tooled around on a bicycle.

"People were great. It was so well organized. I didn't notice any animosity from the athletes or the host country," Brown recalled in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

Four decades later, he will return to the Olympic Games -- as coach of the US men's basketball team -- but he isn't expecting the experience in Athens to be anything like Japan.

Several top players have defected, and the world political situation is likely to prompt some hostility toward American athletes. Still, Brown is looking eagerly ahead toward trying to bring back the gold medal.

Coaching the US team is a task he considers a duty and an honor, after serving as an assistant under Rudy Tomjanovich on the 2000 team that won gold in Sydney.

Having been to more than his share of hostile arenas, Brown is expecting that dynamic to jump to a whole new level -- not only when the Americans play in Athens, but also in exhibitions against Serbia and Montenegro in Belgrade and the Turkish national team in Istanbul.

"I wanted that," Brown said. "I asked the USOC if we could get the most competitive games in the most difficult environments for our team, because obviously we're going to experience some difficulties in Greece."

When Brown made that request, he was expecting to be traveling through Europe with a team full of NBA superstars including Kobe Bryant, Elton Brand, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Vince Carter, and Shaquille O'Neal.

But none of those players will be donning the red, white, and blue.

Brown's team will include American stars Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd, Karl Malone, Tracy McGrady, Richard Jefferson, Mike Bibby, Jermaine O'Neal, LeBron James, Stephon Marbury, Shawn Marion, and Amare Stoudemire. Brown expects the level of hostility toward American athletes to come as a sobering surprise to his players.

In Europe this summer, the US team will enter a foreign forum where anti-American sentiment has grown, in large part because of the war in Iraq. "Most of these guys have been adored wherever they've played," said Brown. "Compared to Ohio State at Indiana, or North Carolina at Duke, I guess it'll be taken up a notch or two. It's going to be an interesting thing to see how our players respond."

Brown played for the US team at a time when it was undefeated in the Olympics, its first loss not coming until 1972 against the Soviet Union in a controversial defeat at the final buzzer.

The next loss came 16 years later in Seoul, also against the Soviets, in the last Olympics in which professionals were barred from participating.

The Barcelona Games of 1992 ushered in the Dream Team era, and the United States has improved its Olympic record to 109-2 by winning the gold there, in Atlanta and Sydney.

The level of competition has improved measurably over each four-year period, with the Americans finally being tested in Australia when they needed a last-second 3-point miss by Lithuania to survive the semifinals.

A US team of NBA players was defeated three times -- trounced might be a better word -- at the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis. And the American team that qualified for the Olympics in Puerto Rico last summer had its hands full in a second-round game against Argentina, winning by 8, before routing them by 33 in the championship game.

McGrady is having second thoughts about going to Athens, as is Bibby, leaving the Americans perhaps without two of their best outside shooters and their best one-on-one defender. Among the candidates to replace them are Sam Cassell and Ron Artest, a pair of players with plenty of passion but almost no experience with international rules.

"It's almost like a different sport," said Brown, citing the shorter 3-point line, the rule prohibiting players from calling timeouts, another rule allowing basket interference and a game clock that runs for 40 minutes instead of 48 as it does in the NBA.

The medal Brown won in Tokyo is on display at the bottom of his staircase, his only piece of memorabilia not stuffed away in storage.

"I look at this as the greatest honor I could ever have in my career," Brown said. "I want to focus on the guys who are going, and how proud we all should be to have an opportunity to represent our country at a time when guys are sacrificing a lot more than we are.

"I would hope that maybe by us going, if we would send the best team and act the right way, maybe people would have a good feeling about us."

Sort of like the feeling Brown had in 1964.

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