King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

U.S. men go to hoops medal round playing a game of "Where's LeBron?" Plus: Drugs, NBC's high-def follies, Al Trautwig and more.

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Apparently USA men’s basketball coach Larry Brown doesn’t agree after all with your favorite columnist on the subject of LeBron James’ rapid improvement over the course of the Olympic tournament.

James sat in the second half of Lithuania’s 94-90 win over the United States Saturday as the U.S. got done in by Lithuania’s 3-point shooting down the stretch. Brown, grilled Sunday by the media, said he had a lot of stars on the team and couldn’t concern himself with any one player’s minutes. “I have 12 guys,” he said. “You play the guys who at the time you think give you the best chance to win.”

True, but Brown’s determination that James isn’t one of those guys, well, that’s just another one of those moves that I guess makes Larry Brown such a genius, because it’s beyond me. The U.S. built a 10-point lead in the second quarter with James in the game, and then lost it with him on the bench. That wasn’t unusual. Throughout the tournament, especially since the win over Greece, the U.S. has been a much better team with James on the floor.

With the Americans almost assured of getting to the medal round even if they lost to Lithuania, Brown may have been playing his cards close to the vest, not showing Lithuania the A game knowing they’ll meet again.

I doubt it, but if so, that wouldn’t be too smart either, because James, who is 19, has clearly been figuring out the international game over these last few games, and sitting him can only impede his progress.

This is not to say that the U.S. would have beaten Lithuania if James were in there. That was no fluke. Lithuania can play. It may be the best team in the tournament, and it beat an American team that played a good game.

After beating the U.S., Lithuania guard Sarunas Jasikevicius summed up American international basketball fortunes better than any typist has since this team came together: “The NBA probably — I’d say 17 or 18 years ago — there was a huge difference,” he said.

“Now, obviously international basketball has caught up. The NBA is still the best league, and all the best players play there. But obviously all the best players are not here [in Greece], who play in that league. This team, in my opinion, is still the favorite to win gold. But this team is not unbeatable.”

The Americans will in fact move on to the medal round. They crushed winless Angola 89-53 Monday in a meaningless game. James did play 27 minutes, but against an opponent that was totally outmanned and presented little challenge.

It’s occurred to me watching the U.S. women’s basketball and softball teams blow through their tournaments that a few years down the road they’re going to be going through the same thing. The basketball team finished the preliminary round 5-0, winning its games by an average score of 86-57. The softball team won the gold medal Monday by beating Australia 5-1, bringing their tournament record to 9-0. They outscored their opponents 51-1.

Only the softball team has the since-the-dawn-of-time dominance that men’s basketball has had, but right now, both programs are in a class by themselves. For women, basketball and softball are American games. The world will catch up over the coming years, and I wonder if it will be widely seen as a symptom of the demise of character, morality and work ethic among young Americans, the way the men’s basketball team is.

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We have our first steroid strip [PERMALINK]

Russia’s Irina Korzhanenko became the first athlete to be stripped of a medal for drug use Monday, losing the shot-put gold she’d won at Ancient Olympia after testing positive for steroids.

The Draconian anti-doping policy in international sports is really working well. Korzhanenko failed a drug test in 1999. She was stripped of a silver medal she’d won at the world indoor championships that year, and the resulting two-year suspension kept her out of the 2000 Olympics. So if anybody understood the consequences of continuing to use drugs, it was Korzhanenko. Not only had she been badly burned in the past, but she faced a lifetime ban if she got caught again.

Another shot putter, nine weightlifters and a boxer have been sent home from the Games so far, and the track and field test results are just starting to come in, so stand by. I think we can all see how well the deterrent effect of the clap-’em-in-irons policy has taken hold.

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NBC’s high-definition coverage [PERMALINK]

I mentioned Friday that I haven’t seen NBC’s high-definition coverage, and many readers were good enough to write in with hilarious descriptions of how bad it’s been. Here are the three that painted the best picture.

Kevin Ashton: Just so you know, NBC’s HD Olympics coverage sucks. They run 2-day-old footage, constantly interrupted by the same three-minute helicopter reel of Greek tourist spots, and a single ad for Sony. Why they don’t just put the regular coverage on HD? It’s a mystery.

Marcos Huerta: I just wanted to say that the high-definition broadcasts on NBC are visually splendid, but their choices for what to broadcast and how in HD are proving interesting. They aren’t in any way in sync with what’s on NBC.

What strikes me as being really odd is that none of the HD broadcasts are live, or even with the same tape delay as the mother network. When NBC showed the Opening Ceremonies in prime time last week or whenever, NBC-HD was showing, get this, the Winter Olympics from 2002 — the ladies’ figure skating final.

Anyway, it seems to me showing live big events like the men’s basketball team or swimming or something would be wise for the HD station but thus far NBC seems to be using it as a novelty rather than as a higher video-quality version of what they deign important for their normal broadcast audience.

John O’Brien: As an HD viewer, I may have an insight into why NBC’s overall coverage is better than average: They’ve exiled all the morons into their HD broadcast where they can do less damage.

The HD broadcasts have been bad in a way that is seldom seen in the slickly produced world of network TV. My first suspicions that my shiny new HDTV would be wasted on the Olympics came during the Opening Ceremonies — somewhere around the S’s in the Parade of Nations, they suddenly skipped back to the M’s and repeated the parade from there. This may have gone on all night in an endless loop. When I tuned in the next morning, they were still showing the Parade of Nations.

You wouldn’t know it from the breathless hype they are giving the HD coverage on the other channels, but the HD stuff is on a 24-hour delay. You might think this would lend itself to gross over-production (see NBC’s coverage of the Sydney Olympics), but so far as I can tell, the HD broadcast isn’t being produced at all. Sometimes the events are shown out of order.

Often they jump from one event to another, without a bridge to explain what is going on. Sometimes events are repeated “Teletubbies” style. They finish showing one race, someone’s toddler obviously shouts, “Again! Again!” and they show the exact same race again. Sometimes they don’t show anything at all, instead filling massive blocks of time with a repeating montage of the same 10 images of Greek tourist attractions. (Two of these images feature donkeys. In any given one-hour period, these donkeys are shown roughly 200 times apiece.)

The crowning moment for the HD coverage came during the men’s all-around gymnastics final (Wednesday night for regular viewers, Thursday for the HD audience). Announcer Paul Sunderland became more and more frustrated with the completely random way the producers were deciding what to broadcast.

During the fifth rotation, the camera became fixated on Romanian Marian Dragulescu wrapping his wrists for his next event. After several minutes of this, Sunderland finally lost it and started complaining on air: “There’s gymnastics going on out there! The event is still going on! Why are they showing this! They’re showing this because they are STUPID!” (I’m paraphrasing, but pretty closely)

Remember, this was broadcast the next day. In 24 hours, the producers at NBC-HD didn’t have time to edit out a smackdown by their own play-by-play guy? Pathetic. But pure comedy gold.

It’s a pity the incompetent production has driven away all but the most donkey-fixated viewers from the HD coverage by now, since Sunderland and the other announcers are actually doing a fine job. If you can get to an HD TV, it’s worth checking out a little of the broadcast. Such a pure expression of the Olympic ideal of amateurism will probably never again be seen on a U.S. network.

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Al Trautwig, whipping boy [PERMALINK]

Al Trautwig, who calls gymnastics, seems to have replaced John Tesh as the Olympic announcer who makes everyone I know and hear from want to go on a shooting rampage. I’m going to get a flood of e-mails just for mentioning his name. I have to agree he’s pretty bad. He’s constantly going for the big, dramatic, memorable one-liner, and each one is more tin-eared than the last.

And though Trautwig’s been doing gymnastics for years, he sounds as though he’s never seen a gymnastics competition with the stupid questions he asks analysts Tim Daggett and Elfi Schlegel. I think what he’s trying to do is set them up with leading questions, but he does it so ineptly that you don’t even listen to their answers, you’re so amazed anyone could have asked such a bonehead thing having seen five minutes worth of the sport.

My favorite comment of his so far came Sunday night, when he sort of combined his two main talents. During the medals ceremony for the men’s rings, gold medalist Dimosthenis Tampakos of Greece stepped onto the podium in front of a huge, jubilant crowd. Daggett, an American who won a gold medal in the high bar in Los Angeles in 1984, said something about knowing how good that moment feels for Tampakos.

Trautwig said, “And now, what will happen when the Greek national anthem is played in an arena that is filled with this many Greek supporters?”

Daggett didn’t answer, but I thought: Gee, Al, could it be that they’ll sing along, and then they’ll go crazy when it’s over? You’re not going to believe this, but that’s exactly what happened!

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Hench-items [PERMALINK]

  • It is very cool that women’s wrestling has been added to the Olympics. It’s wrong any time women aren’t given the chance to compete in a sport. Of course, I don’t have any better clue what’s going on when women are wrestling than when men are. Ditto judo.

  • I’ve always thought Canada had the best national anthem I’ve ever heard, but after watching that medal ceremony for the men’s rings Sunday night, in which Tampakos was crowned in front of a jubilant home crowd, I think I’m ready to throw “O Canada” over for the Greek anthem. Maybe I just got caught up in the moment there, but it’s really a terrific piece of music, lively and stirring and unmistakably Greek. I’ve heard it before, I think without realizing it was the Greek national anthem.

  • I wrote the other day that I hadn’t heard a non-U.S. national anthem in the first week of the Games, and several people pointed out that various anthems — Australia, Japan, Romania, South Africa — had been played at medal ceremonies in prime time on U.S. TV. It’s true, I’d at least heard the Australian anthem several times. My addled mind had jettisoned that memory for some reason having nothing to do with Australia or its own fine anthem, “Advance Australia Fair.”

    Previous column: NBC’s improved coverage

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