U.S. Is Ready to Reclaim Top Spot

LeBron James
Team USA forward LeBron James soars to the basket for a dunk during training camp in preparation for the FIBA World Championships held at Japan in August. (Mike Blake - Reuters)
By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 20, 2006

LAS VEGAS, July 19 -- There was LeBron James, rebounding Chris Paul's three-point attempts as if he were an anonymous assistant coach. And there were Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, the other notable bench-warmers from the infamous 2004 U.S. men's Olympic team, thinking pass before shot.

"This is a lot different; already this feels special," Anthony said after the U.S. national basketball team practiced for the first time Wednesday afternoon.

This is how Jerry Colangelo always envisioned it.

On the day Mike Krzyzewski's Check-Your-Id-At-the-Door basketball camp wrapped up its first day on the UNLV campus, Colangelo's baby also took its first steps.

Colangelo, the managing director of USA Basketball, hatched the idea of plucking the Duke coach to recapture America's international hoops reputation after taking the bronze medal in Athens and a dreadful sixth-place finish at the 2002 World Championships.

Colangelo also came up with the idea of ditching the old strategy of picking a team specifically for a tournament, which in the past decade amounted to pleading with NBA stars to play and then praying they did not pull out or pull a hamstring prior to the Olympics.

However ridiculous it sounded to NBA supernovas who like their summers off, Colangelo also came up with the idea of enlisting 24 players into a three-year commitment, regardless of whether they make the traveling squad or not.

So, it's easy to understand why he stood on the Cox Pavilion practice court Wednesday, his arms folded across his chest in satisfaction like a proud father of his second son -- the kid who could do no worse than that problem child from a few years ago.

"Collectively, we've put the right infrastructure in place," Colangelo said. Many of his decisions were made in regard to Athens, where NBA players were beaten for the first time in the Olympics. Puerto Rico, Lithuania and Argentina all made history in 2004 against Team USA. "We brought the right players in. A lot of what we've done can be recognized by who was not invited. We don't have any issues or problems."

Krzyzewski has already put the kibosh on one issue from the past: which megastars are present and which ones aren't.

When the questioning turned toward Kobe Bryant and what it felt like not to have the injured Los Angeles Lakers star there for the first day of practice, Krzyzewski said: "I love Kobe, but Kobe isn't going to be here. We're concerned with 'What now?' not 'What if?' "

"We didn't have a program after the Dream Team," he added. "We just selected teams. Who knows, I'm not saying everything we're doing is right or whatever, but you've got to start out with something. Then we'll critique it. And hopefully be successful. And then whatever we do is left as an example for what the next group will do. The point is, let's eliminate the distractions and get on to the next thing."

As for the practice itself, the UNLV campus undeniably hosted the largest and greatest collection of current players known in this country. Ten NBA all-stars, including Washington's Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, a bevy of Wooden Award winners and NBA role players took the court for a freewheeling offensive show.

"It felt like a [Phoenix] Suns practice," Arenas said of the up-and-down, transition nature of the day.

That might have something to do with Krzyzewski's blue-ribbon staff of Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni and Portland Coach Nate McMillan.

There is no official cut; every player is expected to be a part of the national team the next three years in some way. Yet the paring down from 24 to between 12 and 15 players before the team leaves for exhibitions in China and South Korea and, ultimately, the World Championships Aug. 19-Sept. 3 in Japan will be an ego bruise for some players who have never been passed over for another player in their lives.

But then, that was Colangelo's idea. After the failures internationally the past four years, the process had to change in his mind: Making the U.S. national team would become a privilege instead of a birthright for NBA millionaires.

"I don't want to look back on the past," Colangelo said. "I wanted a fresh, new approach to everything. That's no disrespect to anyone else. But it was time to wipe the slate clean."

"We invented the game," he added. "We taught people how to play the game. They came back and knocked us off the perch. That's the reality of it. And now we want to be back in the rightful position where we feel we belong."

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