Ten years later, Carmelo Anthony still remembers where he stood.
He points to a spot between the 3-point arc and the sideline, recalling the position from where he watched a celebration some teammates couldn’t bear to face.
“Everybody was walking off the floor. There was confetti, things on the court,” Anthony said. “Everybody was celebrating and I stayed, I stayed right there on the court. I just wanted to see it and kind of feel it.”
The Americans haven’t felt it since.
The U.S. had just lost to Greece in the semifinals of the 2006 world basketball championship, a team coached by Mike Krzyzewski and led by likely future Hall of Famers LeBron James, Anthony and Dwyane Wade falling to a team that had no NBA players.
That 101-95 loss in Japan is the only deefeat in 76 games since Krzyzewski took over in 2005.
Whether it was an upset depends on who you ask, but there’s no debating what it meant to a U.S. team that hasn’t looked back.
As the U.S. rolls into Rio and Greece tries to qualify this week , people on both sides remembered the buildup, the game and the aftermath.
Jerry Colangelo had overhauled USA Basketball after the Americans’ embarrassing performance in the 2004 Olympics, when Anthony was part of a team that managed only a bronze. But it would take a while to get the U.S. program to where it is now.
“From ’04 to ’06, it wasn’t no organizational structure,” Anthony said. “It was just come together, put a team together and just try to go out there and win.”
Colangelo set out to change that by selecting players months in advance, then bringing them to camp and making roster cuts — something the U.S. has stopped doing.
“We really had tryouts,” Chris Paul said. “Like, you think about it, you get to the highest point of your professional career, the NBA, and we had tryouts for the USA team. I remember diving on the floor against Luke Ridnour and stuff like that. So when you think back like that, it puts it all in perspective.”
James, Anthony and Wade, who had just been MVP of the NBA Finals, were the headliners of the team. Paul had won Rookie of the Year.
The rest of the team was good, but far short of a Dream Team — even though that’s what U.S. teams with NBA players always get called across the globe. Kobe Bryant was the biggest absence after knee surgery on the eve of the Americans’ training camp.
“A lot of people probably couldn’t even name that team if you wanted to,” Paul said. “We had guys like Kirk Hinrich, Elton Brand, Brad Miller.”
The rest of the roster: Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard, Joe Johnson, Shane Battier and Antawn Jamison.
The Americans arrived in the semifinals with a 7-0 record but had some struggles along the way. Puerto Rico scored 100 points on them in the opener, and the Americans were down 12 to Italy in the second half before Anthony bailed them out with a then-U.S. record 35 points.
Spain and Argentina, the reigning Olympic champion, were also 7-0 and met in one semifinal. The overlooked team was Greece, which had won all seven games in the worlds after winning the 2005 European championship.
“I think we had a really good group with inside and outside players, and also we had a team who could play smart to get the advantage,” said Panagiotis Yannakis, who coached Greece.
Realizing the Americans’ advantage in athleticism, Yannakis’ plan was to play three guards who could control the tempo. Theodoros Papaloukas was one of the best in Europe, Vassilis Spanoulis was bound for the Houston Rockets and Dimitris Diamantidis a steady leader.
If they could protect the ball and pound it inside to 6-foot-10 Sofoklis Schortsianitis — nicknamed “Baby Shaq” — the U.S. transition game would be stalled.
“Some of the teams are afraid, but some other teams don’t have the guards to protect the ball,” Yannakis said. “Don’t give them the opportunity to use their hands, because USA players, they use a lot of their hands on the ball. That’s the reason we used three guards. All of them, they had the skills to control the ball.”
The U.S. led by 12 in the first half, but Greece stormed ahead by making 25-of-33 shots (76 percent) in the second and third quarters. Carving the Americans up on the pick-and-roll, the Greeks got 22 points from Spanoulis, 12 assists from Papaloukas and plenty of help from the U.S., which made 59 percent of its free throws.
Most of the U.S. players quickly retreated to the locker room as the Greeks danced at midcourt.
“I just remember the end of the game,” Anthony said, “and just standing on the court and Greece fans are going crazy, their team is going crazy.”
Yannakis believed his team could do it — “We had the faith to play with anyone,” he said — but Sacramento Kings center Kosta Koufos, who will play for Greece this week but was then a high schooler in the U.S. who stayed up well past 3 a.m. to watch, was surprised.
“You’ve got to understand Team USA’s dominance through the years and that was definitely an upset for them,” he said.
“Would I consider it an upset at the time? Oh, for sure I would have. I still do,” he said. “I think we might’ve played that team 10 times and won nine of those 10. But that was back to the old adage that on any given night.”
Greece couldn’t duplicate its effort in the final, getting blown out by Spain. The Americans beat Argentina for bronze, then went home to build a better team. Jason Kidd and Deron Williams were added to bolster a backcourt that would include Bryant the next year, when they powered through an Olympic qualifier they were forced to play in by not winning the worlds.
The teams would then meet again in Beijing, the Americans cruising to a 92-69 victory. But they would never forget the game two years earlier.
“I mean, the stars were aligned for Greece that night and I chose and still do, as much it pains me, to say out of adversity comes opportunity,” Colangelo said. “And I think we were emboldened by the fact that we paid a price early, that we were potentially vulnerable and I think that helped prepare us for our future success.”