JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The NBA and USA Olympic basketball committee got off to a contentious start Saturday, and the rocket's red glare was coming from coach Larry Brown's brow.
Brown benched co-captain Allen Iverson, LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire for arriving late to a pregame meeting before the United States' 96-71 exhibition victory against Puerto Rico at Veterans Memorial Arena.
But Brown was livid with Olympic officials after they ordered the arena's public-address announcer to inform an announced sellout crowd of more than 14,000 that the three players would not play and why.
"I was totally embarrassed by the announcement, because it embarrassed those guys, and it was uncalled for," Brown said. "They broke a team rule, and we are a team. They paid the penalty, (but) nobody wanted to embarrass them."
It was not the way Team USA wanted to begin its quest for gold in Athens, Greece, its lone exhibition appearance in the United States.
The squad left after the game for Cologne, Germany, to continue its training. Team USA will play two exhibitions in Germany, another in Serbia and then head to Turkey for two more exhibitions before facing this same Puerto Rican team to open Olympic play Aug. 15.
Tom Jernstedt, president of the USA Basketball Executive Committee, made the decision to inform the crowd of the suspension of the three players, because ESPN, which carried the 1 p.m. game, and the rest of the media covering the event knew about the benchings. But Brown took his wrath out on Craig Miller, USA Basketball assistant executive director of communications.
"Coach Brown wasn't happy with me," Miller said.
A no-nonsense basketball lifer who coached the Detroit Pistons to a title last season, Brown obviously wasn't happy with his tardy players. Of course, as the ex-Philadelphia 76ers coach, Brown had vast experience doling out punishment to Iverson, who made it a habit of being late to his practices.
Brown had chosen Iverson co-captain, with Tim Duncan, saluted his maturity the past week and planned to start him. But apparently, old habits die hard.
Iverson strolled into the team's 11 a.m. pregame meeting at its hotel about five minutes late and later said, "I didn't know if we came late, we'd have to sit out the whole game. I couldn't have been more than five minutes late, and I know it wasn't more than five minutes. But that's not the point. If I was late, I was late. (Brown) made the decision, and I got to live with it and move on.
"You can't make any excuses. I'm the captain of the team, and to be suspended from a game for being a couple minutes late is a bad thing. That doesn't sit well with me. I'm supposed to be one of the leaders for the team, and that's not a good look."
It was the first public misstep for James and Stoudemire as NBA players.
"I'm never going to disagree with Coach's decision. Yeah, I was late for a meeting, and whatever he decides, he takes it from there," said James, who said he was five or 10 minutes late and was not out partying with Iverson or Stoudemire.
"It was surprising (Brown) made that decision at first, but it's a decision I got to live with. I let the team down by being late, but I'll make up for it. It ain't the end of the world."
Stoudemire said he was about a minute late for the meeting, and when he arrived, the team trainer told him to get his ankles taped first.
The game was the easy part for Team USA. The Americans rushed to a 10-0 lead and never were challenged after Puerto Rico guard Carlos Arroyo of the Utah Jazz stole the ball from Duncan and made it 39-34 in the second quarter.
Exerting its overwhelming athleticism, the United States outscored Puerto Rico 33-21 in the third period to pull away, scoring 12 baskets on an assortment of dunks and lay-ins.
Carmelo Anthony and Juneau-Douglas High School alum Carlos Boozer led the Americans with 16 points, and Duncan added 15 points and 10 rebounds. Guard Larry Ayuso paced Puerto Rico with 19, hitting 5 of 7 3-pointers.
Team USA shot 61 percent but had 20 turnovers as players tried to mesh styles.