SYDNEY -- Raptors star Vince Carter and the rest of the NBA-laden U.S. Olympic basketball team made their first appearance in Sydney last night.
But their arrival was not one to celebrate. The U.S. men's and women's teams were forced to bolt Melbourne, where they had been training, because of violent protests surrounding the World Economic Forum.
"It was a safety issue," said an official with USAB, the governing body for basketball in the U.S. "They had to get out of there."
About 100 protesters sat in the street and blocked the main exit near the front entrance of the Crown Casino and Hotel in Melbourne. The protesters decided by voice vote that they would not move aside to let the teams leave on buses.
The buses then turned around and headed toward a different exit, where another group of demonstrators had gathered.
Not believing that the buses held Olympic athletes, the protesters initially refused to move. After the police asked them to come inside the concrete barricades and have a look for themselves, a 21-year-old with a bizarre haircut volunteered for the job.
"I looked in the first bus and it didn't look like a basketball team, but then I looked inside the second bus," said the mohawk man, Yanni Cotis of Adelaide. "We had a quick discussion about whether to let them go through and decided to let them leave."
The teams had planned to stay in Melbourne until later this week, but the protests forced a hasty change in plans. The men's team had to cancel practice Sunday because of the protests.
USA Basketball officials had been warned months ago that they could become circumstantial victims of the protests, but decided to stick with their choice of accommodations.
Now, they have moved on to Sydney with some strange stories to tell.
"I was stunned by the whole situation," Antonio McDyess said. "How could they let a guy in a mohawk be their leader?"
Said Allan Houston: "What kind of a place are we in when USA Basketball, the police and 100 security guards have to get approval from a guy in a mohawk. What does that tell you?"
The players even came up with a nickname for Cotis, dubbing him "Zippy."
EYE SPY: Canada men's team assistant coach Mike Katz, who is the basketball coach at Toronto's Humber College, returned to Sydney from Perth, Australia, yesterday after scouting the Spanish men's basketball team. Canada plays Spain in its third game of the Olympic tournament, and a win will be crucial to advancing out of the preliminary round.
-- with files from AP