ATHENS, Greece – One of the great scenes in the movie "Hoosiers" is the preseason pep rally where the boys from Hickory High are greeted with scorn by their fellow students because star Jimmy Chitwood is not on the team.
Gene Hackman takes the microphone, reminds everyone that they should cheer for who is on their team, not who isn't, and then points out passionately: "This is your team."
America, this is your team.
And you know what? Our men's basketball team isn't half as bad or insufferable as many would have you believe – including Team USA coach Larry Brown, the anti-Hackman, who would rather rail about deficiencies, no-shows and the flawed selection process than anything else.
Thursday in Athens, the United States pushed its new Olympic win streak to two with a hard-fought 89-79 decision over Australia. Team USA's performance wasn't perfect and it never will be. But just as they did against the Greeks on Tuesday, when the game hit crunch time the Americans played tough, played together and played well.
"We feel that we are capable of winning the gold medal and that's why we came here," said LeBron James, who scored eight points and continued to be Team USA's most spirited on-the-ball defender.
Listening to the players, there is an "I think we can" attitude emerging from the rubble of self-doubt that followed the team's opening-game loss to Puerto Rico. These guys are coming together in a, dare we say, endearing way – lots of towel waving on the bench, minimal finger pointing on the court.
Of course, if you listen to talk radio in the States – or to their own coach – you hear about dumb, selfish, immature players.
You hear about who isn't here, not who is.
"That is something we can't change," said team USA forward Lamar Odom. "Only way we can change that is playing our best basketball, be competitive and represent where we come from well."
Considering the egos involved, this team's all-for-one/one-for-all attitude on the bench and in front of the media is pretty impressive.
Want proof? Allen Iverson did not play in the fourth quarter on Thursday. When asked about it, he shrugged.
"Obviously I wasn't one of the guys playing well on the basketball court," Iverson said. "Whatever looked good for us, whatever was effective, I am fine with it even if I am not on the court."
Even Brown acknowledged his team is making progress on Thursday.
"I think they are starting to care about each other and understanding the importance of representing our country and doing the right thing," Brown said.
Of course, Brown immediately went on to lament the selfishness of youth, his miscast team and fate in life as its coach – but we'll spare you the details.
(Brown's best blast Thursday was aimed at Donn Nelson, the Dallas Mavericks assistant coach who is also an assistant for Lithuania. A foreign journalist asked Brown why Nelson wasn't on the U.S. staff. "He has enough trouble coaching Dallas," Brown said.)
It is true that this remains a flawed team. After a 3-for-17 three-point shooting performance Thursday, the United States has now missed 52 of 62 shots from behind the arc in these Olympics.
There was another slow start – the Aussies scored 31 in the first quarter. There were lapses.
But these guys play hard. When they decide to defend, they can simply snuff you out. U.S. ball pressure triggered a 22-5 run to start the fourth quarter, as one example.
They are willing to win ugly with defense, rebounding and floor burns.
So Shaq isn't here. Neither is T-Mac, or Jimmy Chitwood for that matter. But in the last two games, this has been a good team, a likable team.
"We are doing it for the name on our chest," Odom said.
The United States of America.
This is your team.
- Gene Hackman