boston celtics

Venezuela
AP

Canada’s return to Olympic basketball on hold after heartbreaking loss; Argentina qualifies

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Canada came oh-so-close to making its first Olympic men’s basketball tournament since 2000 on Friday but will now have to wait until one month before the Rio Games for its last chance to qualify.

“Our dreams have just been put on hold,” Canada coach Jay Triano said, according to TSN.

The Canadians, with nine NBA players on their roster, lost 79-78 to Venezuela, with zero NBA players on its roster, in the FIBA Americas semifinals in Mexico.

With the game tied 78-78, Venezuela guard Gregory Vargas was fouled on an offensive rebound with three tenths of a second left (a call held up after review) and hit the first of two free throws to clinch his nation’s first Olympic basketball berth since 1992.

“It was David versus Goliath and we came on top, we leave everything out there,” Venezuela coach Nestor Garcia said, according to The Associated Press. “This is an historic day for Venezuela. Many people doubted that we were capable of this.”

Venezuela joined the U.S., Brazil, Australia and Nigeria in the Olympic field so far. Later Friday, 2004 Olympic champion Argentina beat Mexico 78-70 in the other FIBA Americas semifinal and became the sixth nation to make the Olympic field that will eventually be 12 teams.

Canada, Mexico and fifth-place Puerto Rico advanced to a global, last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament in July.

Canada has the talent to compete for a medal in Rio, should it qualify.

Its FIBA Americas roster featured NBA Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, Toronto Raptors guard Cory Joseph and Boston Celtics center Kelly Olynyk, who had game highs of 34 points and 13 rebounds against Venezuela.

For the Olympics, it could add Cleveland Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson.

The talent is much deeper than the 2000 Canadian Olympic team that had two NBA players — eventual two-time MVP Steve Nash and center Todd MacCulloch.

Nash, now the general manager of Team Canada, has said as much and described that 2000 team as “out for a scrap.” It lost by five points to France in the quarterfinals, just missing the chance to play for a medal in Sydney.

Nash was reportedly sobbing and had to be dragged off the floor after that defeat, but he recovered to smuggle beer into the Closing Ceremony the following Sunday.

Canada owns one Olympic basketball medal — silver at Berlin 1936, the first Olympics to include basketball.

Venezuela’s roster at FIBA Americas included Kobe Bryant‘s cousin John Cox. It could add Milwaukee Bucks guard Greivis Vasquez for the Olympics.

Argentina, which has played the U.S. in the last three Olympic semifinals, qualified for Rio without stalwart Manu Ginobili, who at 38 has likely played his final international game.

Argentina’s team at FIBA Americas included 2004 Olympic champions Luis Scola and Andres Nocioni.

MORE BASKETBALL: Five Olympic questions with Steve Nash

*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported Gregory Vargas was fouled while shooting with three seconds left.

Five Olympic questions with Larry Bird

Larry Bird
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INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird shared his arena with fellow Olympians this past week, athletes two feet shorter than him who were born well after he won his Olympic gold medal.

The Dream Team member took time during the P&G Gymnastics Championships at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to discuss Olympic topics.

Here were some of his thoughts:

OlympicTalk: In the 2012 “Dream Team” book, you mentioned watching the Olympics with your dad growing up, when you had about two TV channels, and specifically the national anthem. Any specific Olympic events or athletes in your memory?

Bird: It didn’t matter. If we turned over [on the TV], and the national anthem was playing, we stopped. If it was another country’s national anthem, he might go back somewhere and then come back to that station later on. It was pretty wild. If they had a [medal] ceremony, it wasn’t like an advertisement where you could get up and go get something. He sat there and watched it every time. You might hear The Star-Spangled Banner six or seven times in one night. I can remember him saying, “Boy, wouldn’t that be something to be standing on that gold-medal platform, listening to that Star-Spangled Banner?” Sure enough, I got lucky enough to do that.

OlympicTalk: Was there anything you weren’t able to experience at the Barcelona Olympics that you wish you could have done?

Bird: Well, yeah, there’s a lot of things I wish I could have done. But I did get to watch baseball games. I got to watch Japan, Cuba, all the best, the United States. That’s what I love. I love international baseball for some reason.

OlympicTalk: What did you think of Boston pulling out of the 2024 bid race?

Bird: I’m disappointed, because there’s no better place to have an Olympics. I think it’s the greatest sports town in the world. I lived it, and they love all sports. But, the people weren’t behind it 100 percent. And you can understand that. It takes away your whole summer and all the prep and all that. Boston’s not easy to get around in, but I just thought it would be absolutely perfect for Boston.

OlympicTalk: Paul George said he has your support in going for the Rio Olympic team while coming back from injury. What is your perspective there?

Bird: My take on all that is, just knowing how I felt about playing for my country, who am I to tell Paul George he can’t play for his country? I don’t think that’s fair. Now, has there got to be some insurance policies and different things set up going forward? We’ve got to have some protections, but, yeah, I can’t sit here and tell you that I should tell Paul George he can’t go out and live a dream. Because I know how I felt. I want him to play.

OlympicTalk: Will the upcoming, expected salary cap increase deter players who will be free agents in 2017 from playing in the Olympics, risking injury ahead of potential bigger contracts?

Bird: It could. There’s so much on the line. There was always a lot on the line, but it seems like it’s tripled now. I can see why guys would not want to practice and pull themselves out of it.

Larry Bird, Kim Zmeskal remember Dream Team, gymnasts meeting on Barcelona bus

Larry Bird, Kim Zmeskal remember Olympic bus meeting in Barcelona

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INDIANAPOLIS — As the nation’s best gymnasts compete here with the Rio Olympics in the back (or front) of their minds, an Olympic gold medalist from another sport expects to peek into the action.

The Indiana Pacers team president said he planned to emerge from his downstairs office to take in the P&G Championships at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

It would not be Larry Bird’s first encounter with gymnastics.

Bird was of course part of the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team — the Dream Team — in Barcelona.

There, he triggered a meeting among the basketball giants and the shortest girls on the U.S. delegation in Spain.

“We went over to [the athletes’ village to] get, I think, our credentials,” Bird said while leaning back in his office and holding a soda can on Thursday morning. “There was a lot people around, but these little girls were by our bus. I just went on the bus and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to let these kids come on here.’

“They brought them all on, and they did what they had to do and they left.”

Four of the six members of the 1992 U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team came aboard, according to reports from 1992.

“They were nervous,” Bird said. “All of us had been in the league, and we’re older, but the guys were excited about them coming on there. I know that.

“I think the guys probably enjoyed that as much as anything, of everyone they met, because [the gymnasts] are so little and so perfect. They work so hard. Like we always said, they’re a lot tougher than we can ever be. They’re tough athletes. They put their body through so much. They do so much to be perfectionists. To be a gymnast, you just can’t do it an hour a day.”

Bird would know. He went to Indiana State at the same time as gymnast Kurt Thomas, a 1976 Olympian who won six medals at the 1979 World Championships. The two are reportedly friends.

One of the four U.S. gymnasts who boarded the bus that day was Kim Zmeskal, who was 16 then and is now also in Indianapolis this week as a coach.

Zmeskal clearly remembered meeting the Dream Team.

“A group of us were walking from the cafeteria back, and we had heard that the Dream Team was coming by to do the credentialing,” she said Wednesday. “We knew where the buses were parked, so we immediately ran over to go check that out. We were kind of just a part of a big mix of people. Obviously, we went over to that direction, so we figured that’s where all the action was happening. We’re just kind of standing there outside the bus, and someone had come out of the bus and said, ‘Hey, ladies on the gymnastics team, Larry Bird has asked if you guys would come in.’ We were freaking out, went up on the bus and was able to meet the whole team. It was pretty spectacular.”

Zmeskal said the experience was like meeting larger-than-life, fictional characters.

“I joke saying thank goodness we were on a bus, that they were sitting,” said Zmeskal, who was listed at 4 feet, 7 inches, and 80 pounds in 1992 articles. “I was actually two inches shorter than I am now.”

Two of Zmeskal’s gymnastics teammates, Wendy Bruce and Shannon Miller, missed the experience. Though at least Miller met Dream Team members later in the Games.

Even though the basketball players were sitting, Zmeskal’s head was level with center Patrick Ewing’s elbow, according to a St. Petersburg Times report in 1992.

“We walked over there, and Michael Jordan said, “Hi, I’m Michael,’” Zmeskal reportedly gushed then. “Like we didn’t know.”

Shannon Miller on meeting the Dream Team, more Olympic memories

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Wendy Bruce missed meeting the Dream Team because she was swimming.