It's U.S. Against the World

gilbert arenas - washington wizards
"It was one of the best moments of my basketball career, right up there with playing in my first NBA game and making my first all-star team," Gilbert Arenas said of being asked to try out for the U.S. men's national team. "It was an honor." (Getty Images)
By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2006

Gilbert Arenas held the sheet of paper in front of him and beamed like a grade-schooler who had just received a stellar report card. The document, delivered to the Washington Wizards' all-star guard in late February, was an invitation to try out for the U.S. men's national basketball team.

"It was one of the best moments of my basketball career, right up there with playing in my first NBA game and making my first all-star team," Arenas said. "It was an honor."

That type of reaction from one of the game's young stars was exactly what Jerry Colangelo, managing director of USA Basketball, had in mind when he set out to overhaul the men's national program last summer.

With the embarrassment of poor finishes in the 2002 world championships (sixth place) and the 2004 Olympics (third) providing motivation, Colangelo's first priority was identifying talented players who did not have to be begged to play for their country.

Colangelo made no promises and demanded a three-year commitment. He found eager candidates in Arenas and fellow Wizard Antawn Jamison, who will join 23 other players when the national team opens a two-week training camp in Las Vegas on Wednesday. The team will compete in the world championships later this summer and the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"That was the most important thing," Colangelo said in a conference call. "Previously, I would say that the tail was wagging the dog and you had to pull guys to get them to participate. Early in this process, it became obvious that we had players who shared a vision of what it means to represent their country, they understood what an honor it is. Players talk among themselves and once I spoke with a few guys and they expressed their excitement over playing, this thing turned totally around. Gilbert certainly expressed in this first meeting, and in subsequent conversations, just how much he wanted to be on this team."

The team will be trimmed to between 12 and 15 players on July 25 and that group will continue to practice before facing Puerto Rico in an exhibition game on Aug. 3.

The team will then head to Asia and play a series of games in preparation for the world championships, which take place Aug. 19 to Sept. 3 in Japan. Players who aren't selected to participate in the world championships will still be on the national team roster and will be eligible to play in the 2008 Olympics.

"We're building an entire program not just a single team for one competition," Colangelo emphasized. "This is a three-year deal."

Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski was named coach of the national team in October and will remain in that position through the 2008 Beijing Olympics. His task will be to sort through a roster that includes Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Elton Brand and come up with a team capable of competing against international teams that have steadily gained ground in a sport that was once dominated by the United States.

Krzyzewski's job became more difficult this past week with the loss of four players, most notably Bryant, who likely will miss the world championships after having minor surgery on his right knee yesterday. The U.S. team had already lost J.J. Redick (back injury), Lamar Odom (personal reasons) and Paul Pierce (expected to have elbow surgery in August).

Recovery from a procedure such as Bryant's usually takes eight to 12 weeks. The U.S. team will have to submit a roster of 12 names before worlds begin, and that roster cannot be altered.

In selecting the pool of 25 players, Colangelo and Krzyzewski placed an emphasis on skill, attitude and versatility while making room for role players such as Bruce Bowen, Shane Battier and Brad Miller. The roster has pure point guards such as Chris Paul and Kirk Hinrich, pure shooters such as Arenas and Michael Redd and versatile inside-outside forwards who should flourish in the international game such as Jamison, Brand and Chris Bosh.

If recent national teams were built with the idea of creating buzz and selling jerseys, this one seemingly is being constructed with only one thing in mind: winning.

"We said from the get-go that we are not picking an all-star team, we are picking a basketball team," Colangelo said.

The 2004 Olympic team was stocked with scorers such as James, Wade and Allen Iverson but never created chemistry during a brief training camp, struggled to make shots against packed-in zone defenses and was picked apart on defense by international opponents who typically emphasize ball movement and cohesiveness rather than one-on-one skills and isolation plays.

That team lost to Puerto Rico, Lithuania and Argentina and often looked bad in the process -- especially on defense. Opponents like Puerto Rico's Carlos Arroyo and Argentina's Manu Ginobili regularly broke the defense down with dribble penetration before kicking the ball out to wide-open shooters.

"Our focus has to be on team defense," Krzyzewski said in a conference call. "We have to be able to stop the ball and have defense turn into offense. I know there has been a big thing about how we were unable to attack the zone, but one of the reasons you have a problem attacking a zone is that you don't get any other easy baskets, with fast breaks and offensive putbacks. Everything is going to start with our defense and we're going to get that mind-set going in our first practice."

Jamison, who nearly played for Krzyzewski at Duke before opting to attend rival North Carolina, dispelled any notions that a college coach such as Krzyzewski will have a difficult time managing NBA egos.

"I've got so much respect for him," Jamison said. "Next to Coach [Dean] Smith, I think he's one of the best college basketball coaches ever. I have nothing but the utmost respect for him and I think it's going to be fun. For us, it's about putting USA Basketball back on the map and it's about winning."

Unlike recent national teams, nobody appears to be worried about the absence of several high-profile players. Perennial all-stars such as Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd and Ray Allen turned down invitations while Iverson, the captain of the 2004 Olympic team, wasn't invited.

What's left is a group of excited, motivated players who say they are hungry to erase the shame of recent international failures.

"I know that some people don't want to give up their summers to play basketball, it's the offseason, but you're not playing for your team, you're playing for your country," Arenas said. "It's a great feeling and you should be proud to wear that USA on your jersey just like you're proud to wear your own name on your jersey."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company