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Steve Kelley: At the Olympics

Steve Kelley, a Seattle Times sports columnist for 25 years, is covering his eighth Olympics. He'll share news and tidbits as the Beijing Games unfold.

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August 14, 2008 8:38 AM

What pick and roll?

Posted by Steve Kelley

Even before the national anthem, when the U.S. still was going through warmups, there was a different feel to the men's game with Greece. The Americans were grim-faced through the player introductions. There was no pre-game laughter. No special handshakes.

This was the meeting the Americans have anticipated since Japan in 2006, when a team from Greece that had no NBA players on its roster, ran the most elemental play in basketball, the pick and roll, perfectly, over and over again, against a U.S. defense that was helpless to stop it.

Greece beat the United States in the semifinal of the World Championships and U.S. basketball has been smarting from that loss ever since. And because it came in the wake of the United States winnng only bronze in the Athens Olympics, the loss was even more devastating.

This was the rematch. And it was a mismatch.

On Thursday night, in the third preliminary round game of the Olympic basketball tournament, the United States was committed to its defense. It was hell-bent on stopping the pick and roll. It was swarming and angry and almost scary in its approach to Greece.

And it got revenge, smothering Greece, 92-69.

This win was practically dream teamy.

"Defense just requires energy and brains and we had a supply of that tonight," U.S. assistant coach Mike D'Antoni said. "I'm just really proud of the way they came out here tonight and just took care of business. Sure there was a little bit extra tonight.

"Two years we've been listening to everybody talk about how we can't defend the pick and roll. We couldn't do this. We couldn't do that. Well, not true. We proved we can. We pressured them more today and we knew that was going to be a key. We really stressed that. Watching what we did in 2006, they ran it to perfection back then."


The U.S. is turning this Olympics into some kind of redemption tour. It will take a team -- maybe Spain, maybe Lithuania -- playing better than it has ever played to beat the United States. It's going to take something like Greece did in Japan two years ago.

.


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August 13, 2008 7:52 PM

The mixed (up) zone

Posted by Steve Kelley

They have this system for interviewing athletes at the Olympics that is as archaic as it is chaotic. The place is called the mixed zone and it makes the mosh pit at a Metallica concert look as tame as two seats on the aisle at the Seattle Opera. Neumo's is a church by comparison.

After every event, athletes walk through a maze that is cordoned off by the equivalent of the velvet ropes you see at exclusive New York nightclubs. If they want, the athletes can stop and visit with reporters, usually the ones they know, or the ones who at least speak their language. (I've often been caught in back of a guy I thought was English speaking, only to listen to him start off in a volley of Italian.)

But when the athlete stops, reporters climb all over each other craning their tapes recorders, their necks, their ears, to get a morsel of a quote to throw into their stories.

Sometimes -- rarely -- this system works perfectly. At the Water Cube the other day, while most of the U.S. reporters still were interviewing American women from a previous race, a couple of English-speaking swimmers who had just lost to Michael Phelps in the 200 freestyle final, South Africa's Jean Basson and Great Britain's Robbie Renwick, not only stopped, but were excited to talk about their small part in creating Olympic history.

Phelps had just tied the Olympic record by winning his ninth overall gold medal.

Only a few Canadian and British writers were there with me, while the Americans were working in another part of the mixed zone's switchbacks. The swimmers were great and their cooperation was deeply appreciated.

Most often, however, the system doesn't work. Most often it's downright humiliating. Take the women's gymnastics team final on Wednesday. The U.S. had just lost a heartbreaker to the Chinese after Alicia Sacramone had fallen in both the balance beam and floor excercise. In a room barely the size of walk-in closet, one set of reporters (American) was mashed together, trying to get a word from the devastated Sacramone. We were so pushed together, none of us could have written a word even if we heard one.

In another corner of the closet/mixed zone, the excited Chinese press (many of them cheered unashamedly when China won the gold) pushed forward as one to get immediate responses from China's tiny-dancer gymnasts. There was almost no separation from the two groups and at one point I wondered what it would take for tempers to flare and whether I would get caught in the crush.

Fortunately, with deadlines and such, the crowd thinned. The Chinese went into a news conference where one reporter asked one of the gymnasts what she did to celebrate her 16th birthday. (It was a trick question, because there are very real suspicions that some of the gymnasts aren't 16, the mininum age to compete in gymnastics at the Olympics.)

Sacramone, I must say, handled herself beautifully. She took the blame, offered no excuses and was remarkably composed. A certain group of baseball players in Seattle could learn a little something from her.

The best way to learn to survive the mixed zone is to watch old tapes of Wes Unseld battling Paul Silas for rebound position. Quickly find a spot close to the ropes, spread your arms, give yourself a solid base with your feet and don't budge. (Back in the day, the Germans were great at this. Before smoking bans, they would spread out their arms, holding a cigarette and creating even more space with their smoke. (Paul Silas probably would have tried that if he had been given the option.)

That works, unless Sacramone decides to stop either 10 feet before she gets to you, or 10 feet after she passes you. Then you're toast and you have to hope the gaggle next to you tires and leaves a space for you to slip in.

Also, I noticed on Tuesday night, the United States men's team has found a way through the mixed zone. LeBron James led a group of players, who hurdled the ropes and sprinted into the locker room, which is closed from the media.

We may not see better hurdling until next week when Liu Xiang, Dayron Robles and Terrence Trammell meet in the 110-meter finals.

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August 12, 2008 5:37 PM

Dreaming big

Posted by Steve Kelley

The best thing, actually the only good thing, about missing the 10 o'clock bus back from the basketball venue to the Main Press Center is that you have a half hour to talk hoops.

Outside the Beijing basketball gym, I bumped into Doug Collins, former NBA all-star, former coach at Chicago and Washington and the commentator for Olympic basketball for NBC. I believe he and Hubie Brown are the best teachers of the game on television.

We were talking about how this U.S. basketball team is different from all of the recent teams. This team seems to respect where it is and respects the coaching staff. It hasn't been worn down like the 2004 team was by coach Larry Brown's relentlessness. It has had three summers to play together, to learn each other, to feel more like a team.

And this summer, everybody is here. Kobe Bryant missed the World Championships, where the U.S. lost to Greece and got bronze. Dwyane Wade, who missed last summer's America's tournament in Las Vegas is healthy. The players have embraced the three-year commitment USA Basketball asked of each player and they are playing a much more cohesive game.

The one nagging problem remains outside shooting. Bryant is 1-for-15 on his jump shot through the first two wins over China and Angola. That is hard to believe. LeBron James hasn't been sharp outside. Neither has Wade. Collins believes it's because these guys aren't used to just catching and shooting the ball. On their NBA teams, they're the guys who penetrate and kick to other players. They're the guys who create their own space, create their own jump shots. As hard as it may be to believe, they aren't used to merely receiving a pass, squaring up to the basket and shooting a barely-contested jumper.

My guess is they'll figure it out soon.

Greece is looming. The team that beat the U.S. in the semifinals of the World Championships two years ago, by slicing apart the defense with non-stop pick and rolls, plays the Americans on Thursday night.

"That's our only loss in three years," USA assistant Nate McMillan told me after Tuesday's yawner-of-a-win over Angola. "That's stayed with us."

In that tournament, the U.S. didn't have a zone in its defensive package. A zone could have slowed down Greece. Now the U.S. has a zone. The coaches thought about test-driving it against Angola, but decided not to show it to their next couple of dangerous opponents. (Spain looms after Greece).

McMillan, whose main responsibility is defense, said the team has put a much more comprehensive defensive package together since the worlds.

(BTW, McMillan would have loved to have played zone in the last meeting with Greece, but head coach Mike Krzyzewski, like his mentor Bob Knight, devoutly believes in the man-to-man.)

"The pick and roll is stil the hardest play to defend in basketball," McMillan said.

The United States got lazy -- as it still sometimes does -- in its loss to Greece two years ago. The Americans got a lead and then feel asleep.

Redemption can get ugly. Greece should discover that on Thursday.

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August 10, 2008 5:29 PM

A moment of silence

Posted by Steve Kelley

Early Saturday afternoon, in the middle of his volleyball team's final practice before the start of their Olympic tournament, men's coach Hugh McCutcheon was told he had a phone call.

"We saw him leave practice, but didn't think it was a big deal," said USA player Lloy Ball. "That stuff happens all the time."

But McCutcheon didn't come back. And he may not return for the rest of these Olympics.

After practice, the team was told the shattering news that McCutcheon's in-laws had been stabbed.

His father-in-law Todd Bachman was dead. And mother-in-law Barbara was in critical condition. Barbara Bachman underwent eight hours of surgery Sunday and was listed in critical, but stable condition.
The players only were given the facts at the time and those facts were vague.

Imagine their horror.

Many of them had family arriving in Beijing on Sunday. Ball's wife Sarah and two children were coming. Was some terrorist group targeting Americans? Were they, their families, all Americans in Beijing, in jeopardy?

And then imagine their anguish.

The Bachmans weren't just part of their coach's family, they were the first family of volleyball.

"They are always around," said team captain Thomas Hoff

Their daughter Elisabeth played in the 2004 Athens Games. The Bachmans traveled to volleyball games, both men's and women's and brought gifts and food to the players.

"Hearing the news was tragic, stunning, words can't describe it," Hoff said. "All you can do is think about what the team could do to help. We knew the best thing we could do was to come out here and try to play volleyball."

Some three hours after the stabbings, the players were told that the acts appeared to be the random. The work of a madman.

They were assured this isn't the harbinger of another Munich. There was no evidence that Americans were being targeted.

It is impossible to make sense out of the senseless, to find meaning in something so meaningless, to find inspiration in such cruelty.

So the American volleyball team did the only thing it could do, it played a game. The players tried losing themselves inside the sport they love, their coach loves and the Bachmans have loved.

"I told the guys to go out and enjoy the game of volleyball," interim coach Ron Larsen said. "It is a game and we should love playing it."

Less than 24 hours after learning of Bachman's death, they were on the court, in front of the world, pursing a medal that still was desperately important, but this game, at least, had lost much of its Olympic magic.

"At times they played like they were a little bit sad," Venezuela's Joel Silva said.

Playing in spurts, the United States won a match it was supposed to win, but didn't play the way it had hoped, beating less-talented Venezuela, 25-18, 25-18, 22-25, 21-25, 15-10.

"The last 24 hours have been so hard. Obviously we're playing volleyball and that doesn't compare to the loss that happened to our team and to our whole family," Hoff said. "We all came here to do this and it's very hard to continue on, but our first and foremost thoughts and prayers are with their family."

McCutcheon, a compassionate, hard-boiled coach from New Zealand, called the team on Saturday night and tried as best he could to explain the situation. He said he wouldn't coach them in their opener and didn't know if, or when, he would return.

Suddenly, a team that came to China with so much to win, felt like it was losing everything. Its coach, part of its family, all of the momentum gained from the past four years.

But, still their coach, McCutcheon also offered his guidance.

"To hear his voice and get the leadership from the guy who has been leading our squad for the last four years, meant a tremendous amount to the guys," Hoff said. "He told us that we had to try and move on in our own way.

"This (Olympics) is what he's been building for. This is what he's expended so much passion and energy on. He told us it would be difficult, but together, we could be much stronger. We are completely cognizant of the situation that is going on and we are totally aware that we may see him and we may not."

After the pre-match introductions, the U.S. players made Olympic officials wait to start the match as they gathered in a circle on their side of the net.

They needed this moment together to try to put everything in some kind of perspective before the matches began. They bowed their heads and observed a moment of silence for their late friend and his grieving family.

"It was very difficult in an arena like this and with Olympic protocol and all, but we knew one thing, they weren't going to start the match without us," Hoff said. "We wanted a moment together, where we could gather our thoughts.

"We wanted a moment of silence to honor the Bachman family and Hugh's family. It's tough to change (protocol), but we wanted to do it."

The grieving and the moments of silence will continue through this tournament. The U.S. volleyball team lost part of its family Saturday, in a murder that can't be explained.

And the only option left now for the players, is honor their friends by playing these games with the same kind of passion and affection that the Bachman family has always shown them.

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August 10, 2008 10:37 AM

China celebrates hoops

Posted by Steve Kelley

Carmelo Anthony threw the ball away and China had its first possession of its home Olympics. Then, as the shot clock ticked down, Yao Ming wandered freely at the top of the three-point line, got the ball and hit the first three-pointer on home soil in Chinese Olympic history.

And the crowd, which was buzzing with anticipation before the game like an old Vegas crowd on a big-time fight night, went wild.

Thus began the most entertaining 31-point blowout I've ever witnessed.

As the reviled (at least in our hometown) commissioner of the NBA David Stern knows all too well, China loves basketball. If he wants the league to capture some of its old pizzazz, he should move Memphis to Beijing. The Griz finally would have a home that loved them.

This was the kind of full house that would warm the hearts of every NBA capitalist. If Clay Bennett was watching, he'd probably already be planning to move his team out of OKC and situate it right here in the new Olympic Basketball Gymnasium. This Glitterdome has a capacity of 18,000 and even has luxury suites. It was made for the NBA.

But back to the game, which was won by the U.S. 101-70. In front of the world's most appreciative audience, China hung with the Americans for 15 minutes. The Americans are still having trouble hitting any shot besides a dunk, which helped keep it close.

China was able to take an 11-7 lead and still was tied with the faster, stronger U.S., 29-29, with six minutes left in the half. And for just a moment, this was beginning to feel like Lake Placid in 1980, kind of a miracle on hardwood.

(Before I forget, after the player introductions, the crowd lustily sang along with the public address version of the Chinese National Anthem and it was absolutely stirring.)

At times this crowd was a little schizophrenic, rooting for both teams at the same time. (In the player introductions, Kobe Bryant, not Yao Ming, got the loudest cheers.) They love their basketball here and they obviously were thrilled that their country's first game was against the best collection of basketball players in the world.

Eventually, the Americans' smothering defense wore down China's weak-handled backcourt. Dwayne Wade, another Beijing favorite (heck, this crowd would love Calvin Booth), created havoc and ignited fastbreaks.

The U.S. transition game is so good it makes the court seem like it's about 60-feet long. These young Americans looked to run every time they touch the ball, They have point guards -- Jason Kidd, Wade, Chris Paul and Deron Williams -- who can deliver the ball. And this is the best set of finishers in the history of the sport.

China still only trailed 49-37 at the half, but LeBron James, Bryant, Wade and Chris Bosh led a 14-3 run that ended the third quarter with a 74-48 lead. The run was so spectacular that the fans didn't know whether to feel elated or depressed.

The truth is, this crowd could leave its beautiful new home happy with the knowledge this is the best Chinese National Team ever. Its goal is to make it out of group play and into the quarterfinals. It's a difficult, but reachable goal.

But the crowd also can be excited about the way the United States, the home of their real hoop heroes, played. Since China won't win Olympic gold, I get the feeling the fans would like nothing better than to see the U.S. reclaim its championship.

And now the kiss of death.

I think the U.S.is going to cakewalk through this tournament. Defending Olympic champion Argentina is a shell of itself, already 0-1. Spain in the only reasonable threat to the United States' redemptive run to gold.

In some games, the U.S. still might need Michael Redd or Bryant to punish a team from the outside. But the Americans' defense is the best in the world. And it is playing together like no team since the Dream Team.

This team is so athletic, powerful and deep. In the fourth quarter, when coach Mike Krzyzewski cleared his bench, his "scrubs" were Redd, Carlos Boozer, Tayshaun Prince, Willians and Paul.

Yikes.

But the real story in Sunday's opening game was the great affection China showed for the game. Beijing deserves to host this tournament. For that matter, it deserves to host the Griz, or the New Orleans Hornets, or the Minnesota Timberwolves, or any of a half dozen foundering NBA franchises.

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August 9, 2008 12:01 AM

The Forbidden City: There's no doubt where we are

Posted by Steve Kelley

One of the problems with visiting a city when it is hosting the Olympics is that the combination of government security and International Olympic Committee dictates masks much of the host's charm. When we leave one of these places we often think that we'll have to come back after The Games to see what it really looks like.

I did that in Barcelona in 1992. Went up the coast to Tossa de Mar for a week, then came back to Barcelona and it was a different place. Much more its hip and historic self.

In Atlanta in 1996, the entire city was turned into a honky tonk. There were almost as many carnival workers as athletes. It seemed like there was a Tilt-A-World on every corner. (OK, I'm exaggerating.) In Salt Lake City it was much the same. It was the first Olympics after 9/11 and the fences and concrete security barriers littered the city.

And let's face it, as beautiful as all of the newly built venues always are -- my favorite still is the VIking Ship that housed speedskating at the Lillehammer Games -- after a while a stadium is a stadium, a gym is a gym and all of us get lost in the competition. We could be just about anywhere in the world.

That's why this morning I got up early to accompany photographer Rod Mar (who I'm spending entirely too much time with) to Tiananmen Square and the Forbiddden City to watch the cyclists blur by on their way to The Great Wall.

For this event, there was no doubt where I was. There was Chairman Mao's portrait looming like a deity's over the scene. That picture of course is legendary. And the shot Rod got of the cyclists passing with Mao in the background is a classic.

For me, because I wasn't working on deadline, I got an hour to walk around. To stop in the square and think about the tanks that rumbled through and the violence that happened here.

For the few events like this, that are free to the public, the squares almost always are packed with people and the avenues are lined with spectators. But Saturday the scene was surprisingly tranquil. Most of the people there, I got the impression, were tourists, who were there for two of China's most popular attractions, not the Olympic event. And when the cyclists came by (they were in our view for all of about 11 seconds) there was no cheering. It was as if nobody was paying attention.

But for me, it was magic. I was in Tiananmen Square. There was no Coke banner covering Mao's face on the Forbidden City's wall. The square didn't have some mini-roller coaster rattling around. There was no doubt where we were. This was China. This was real. .

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August 8, 2008 1:12 AM

Great people, spectacular sights but Chinese blunder with Cheek

Posted by Steve Kelley

Five days in a country hardly qualifies me as an expert, especially because so much of Beijing has been taken over by the Olympics that some of its heart has been removed.. But my early thought is that this certainly is a country of contradictions (The same can be said for the United States, by the way.)

Everybody I've met -- everybody -- has been unbelievably kind and helpful. Even the cab drivers have been affable. And cab fares are ridiculously cheap. (Sidebar: before the Olympics, the Chinese government bought all of the Beijing drivers yellow shirts and dark slacks, so even they are in uniform.) We also have these handy cards that show some of the landmarks, so that when we're going some place like the Forbidden City, we can just show the cab driver the picture of the place and the language barrier is bridged.

The city is huge, but it is remarkably clean. China's baseball manager Jim Lefebvre said the changes from when he got here five years ago are remarkable. He said the city used to be "kind of gray," but now it is all florals and greenery. Our accommodations are the best I've had in eight Olympics. The North Star Media Village is a collection of 30-story high rises that surround a beautiful countyard. The place is kept immaculate and there are gardens everywhere -- all violets and impatients. In the middle of the courtyard there's even a Buddhist temple.

And then there is the other side of China, the other side of Beijing. Every day has been gray and smolderingly hot. I can't imagine running an 800-meter race here, let alone a marathon. I've made a vow to myself to never again complain about the grayness of a Seattle winter. This Beijing gray is 100 times as oppressive and depressing as Seattle's gray.

The air is practically apocalyptic. Maybe it's haze. Maybe it's smog, but it is constant. And all it does is keep the heat underneath it like a foul-smelling down comforter.

But most disturbing about my first five days in China has been the news that the visa for Olympic speed skating gold medalist Joey Cheek was revoked. Cheek is the front man for an athletic group known as Team Darfur, which shines a light on the murderous Sudanese government, a government that China has supported.

This is supposed to be China's time to shine. These should be the days when it opens its arms to everybody. This should be a time of harmony. China should be an unambiguous ally to everyone. And, at least for these 17 days, Joey Cheek, whose Olympic soul belongs in Beijing, should be celebrated for his passionate activism, even by the Chinese government.

But in this case, it's as if China can't help itself. It has to be the way it is. It has to stifle Cheek's expression. It has to ignore its support for Sudan's government and ignore those who know that support is encouraging a violent regime.

The government doesn't get it. The worst thing it could have done was keep Cheek out of the country. All that did was draw more attention to itself. To its strange alliances with Sudan and Zimbabwe. To its human rights violations. Etcetera. At the least, barring Cheek from the Games was a monumental public relations blunder.

Like most places on the globe, the people here are warm and hospitable. You get the feeling they are thrilled to see the world coming here. Just a generation ago, China was closed to the world. That seems hard to believe now, as we walk around this city and see so many different styles of dress and listen to so many different languages being spoken.

But it's never the people. It's the governments that screw things up. It's the political leaders -- who are so removed from the reality of every day life -- making these wrong-headed decisions that affect the way their countries are perceived.

Five days into my stay in China, as the Olympic Games finally are about to begin, my early review is mixed. Great people, spectacular sights, hideous weather and a government that can't even loosen its grip for Beijing 2008.

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August 7, 2008 12:47 PM

The NBA in China

Posted by Steve Kelley

Underestandably we're a little down on the NBA in Seattle these days. Something about the Oklahoma City Thunder, or Blunder, or whatever they've decided to call themselves. And, pessimistic as it is to think this way, it could be another decade before the league returns to Seattle and a remodeled KeyArena.

But half a world away, in Dongdan Park, just a block from Beijing's busiest shopping area, the kids on the court are in love with the game. And much of the affection is a tribute to marketing. The courts here are sponsored by Nike. There are swooshes on every center circle on every full court.

During non-Olympic times, posters of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade cover the walls and fences surrounding the courts. A block away, a Nike store showcases jerseys, shoes, just about every saleable item from all of this Fab Three.

Pointing in the direction of the Nike store, 15-year-old Wang Xiao Giang, who plays for his school team in Hunan Province, says "You can look at all the stuff right there. You can see pictures of all the great NBA players. The NBA is everywhere at the store."

Wang admits, almost heretically, that his favorite player isn't China's Yao Ming. He says it's Miami's Dwyane Wade, a member of the U.S. Olympic team. And his second favorite is Denver's Allen Iverson.

"I like his lifestyle," Wang said. "I think he's cool."

Nike cool. Marketably cool.

Wang also had a prediction for the Olympic tournament, which opens Sunday with a game between China and the United States.

"I don't think the United States will win the tournament, but I know that China cannot beat them," he said. "But I think China can win enough games to get to the round of eight. That would be very good for us."

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