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Hard day's night in U.S. hoops

August 10, 2008 |  8:03 am

Manu Ginobili, front, and Luis Alberto Scola couldn't lift Argentina over Lithuania in a preliminary men's basketball game. BEIJING — It’s 4 p.m. and I just got to the arena for Sunday night's big game between the U.S. and China.

I’m a little early, seeing as how the game starts at 10:15 p.m. Of course, I have one colleague who got here at 9.a.m. for the first of the day’s eight games.

We are all a little concerned about getting seats. With all the talk about this being the most-watched game ever, with an audience in the hundreds of millions, we’re a little concerned that a million or so Chinese journalists will turn up.

This is the sixth and — happily — last game of the day. They must have the U.S. playing this late to get it into prime time in the U.S. You know, NBC rules all. ...

Oops, 10:15 p.m. here is 10:15 a.m. on the East Coast. Apparently, NBC doesn’t cut much ice in the People’s Republic of China.

I get here just in time to see the end of Game No. 3 between ... between ... it was about four hours ago but I’m sure I can remember ... oh yes, Spain was one and the other was ... was ... Greece! (Confession: I looked it up.)

Spain won easily, which raises one question: Greece beat the U.S. at the world championships in 2006?

Getting here early, at least, lets me get used to the way things work for the press. Like any Olympics, they don’t work at all.

The Olympics may transfix the planet like nothing this side of the World Cup, but as far as covering them goes, they’re Sportswriting Hell.

In the interview room after the Spain-Greece game, a young female moderator directed the press to ask a question of the Spanish player, then one of the Greek player, then one of the Spaniard etc.

When no one could think of another question for the players, the moderator let the press ask questions of the coaches, alternating back and forth, of course.

This resulted in a penetrating dialogue with answers like this from the Spanish coach, Aíto García Reneses:

“I don’t know why they missed so many free throws, but this was very important for the final score.”

Meanwhile, in the mixed zone, each country’s press corps was hurling itself at the partition that separates us from the players. That’s where the name comes from, from the mixing of the two species.

Then Lithuania played Argentina. That was great since both of those teams can play.

Unfortunately for the Argentines, they didn’t start playing until they were 12 points down in the fourth quarter. Led by Manu Ginóbili, they then tied the score, only to lose in the last seconds on a Linas Kleiza three-pointer.

Same old all-heart Manu. The word in San Antonio is that Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich would have much preferred that Ginóbili take the summer off after playing on a bad ankle all spring. Instead, Ginóbili got an injection in the ankle, which still hadn’t healed, so he could go to training camp with his countrymen.

Then came Australia vs. Croatia.

I had a nice talk between games with Andrew Gaze, the old Aussie sharpshooter who now does color commentary on TV. The Aussies are such great guys, you get the feeling there’s not a jerk in the whole country. I didn’t go to Sydney in 2000, but people who did said it was a dream Olympics.

Also, you have to like any team that has a 3-foot-high inflatable kangaroo they call “Boomer” sitting next to its bench.

I’m typing this as they play. Croatia is waxing them pretty good. I don’t care if the Aussies are the greatest people in the world with the world’s best sense of humor, I’m getting tired of the entire game of basketball.

Just checked my watch ...  8:35 p.m. We’re getting close. Only an hour and 40 minutes before tipoff. ...

It’s 9:15 p.m. Only an hour to wait. I just looked behind me. It’s now standing room only for press people who are just getting here now and jockeying for the best positions behind the press box.

This just in: Croatia 97, Australia 82.

At 9:45 p.m., overflow press is three people deep in back of the press box. A fight almost breaks out between an American who had his daughter with him and an Asian who was reclaiming his spot.

Here come the Americans! Here come the Chinese!

Game time!

I just hope I can stay awake long enough to file.

-- Mark Heisler

Photo: Manu Ginóbili , front, and Luis Alberto Scola couldn't lift Argentina over Lithuania in a preliminary men's basketball game. Credit: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images