By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 21, 2006; E01
LAS VEGAS, July 20 -- The pinch-yourself moment came early Thursday morning, at one of the strip's newest and most luxurious hotels. Antawn Jamison phoned Gilbert Arenas's suite and asked his teammate on the U.S. men's national basketball team to join him for breakfast.
"Gil, you ready to eat?"
"Yep, I'll meet you downstairs."
After devouring a plate of eggs, turkey bacon, turkey sausage and a cup of Gatorade, Jamison looked around the breakfast table. He was not in Washington anymore.
"Instead of Brendan Haywood and Jared Jeffries, you're eating with LeBron [James] and Shawn Marion," Jamison said. And Dwyane Wade, Chauncey Billups and Bruce Bowen, all of whom have won NBA championships.
"I can't believe it," Arenas said, tugging on his No. 21 USA Basketball jersey after practice Thursday afternoon. "I get to go home with this. Even if they don't let me go home with it, I'm going to take it. For me and Antawn, this is big."
Two practices down, and they still have this Wizards-in-wonderland look about them. Arenas and Jamison dribble basketballs around the Cox Pavilion on the UNLV campus in awe, mostly because the idea of representing the United States in international competition -- having the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Dream Teamers such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan -- was impossible to comprehend for either player even three years ago.
Jamison and Arenas were then known as chuckers for the Golden State Warriors, freelance gunners who cared more about numbers than wins, young players who lacked leadership skills and got lumped in with every crossover-dribbling kid who wanted to learn the tricks of the trade before he learned the trade. At the time, their games were emblematic of how others viewed their country's commitment to basketball.
"Let's be honest: Other guys in the NBA that play for different countries, they think we're selfish," Jamison said. "They don't think we move the ball. They think they've caught up with us. We're taking that to heart this time."
Some irony. More than James, Wade, Carmelo Anthony or any of the returning players from the 2004 Olympic team that was exposed and beaten three times in Athens, Arenas and Jamison represent the nation's changing fortunes in basketball. Two years together in Washington has altered their NBA legacies. They've both made at least one all-star team and have led the Wizards to the playoffs in consecutive seasons, a feat not accomplished by the franchise in 18 years.
In that way, the tale of how two 20-point scorers on a lottery team end up trying out for maybe the most talented basketball team in a decade mirrors the redemption Team USA seeks.
"They used to say, 'They're not winners, they're not leaders,' " Jamison said of how critics viewed him and Arenas early in their careers. "But I don't know. You have to believe if the perception of me and Gilbert can change, so can the perception of how people think about American basketball. That's what this is about now."
Jamison is a huge long shot to join the travel team that will compete in Asia next month and try to recapture the world championships in Japan in early September. Though he has impressed Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo, the managing director for the men's senior national team -- and the two people who make the executive roster decisions -- it's unlikely that Jamison will make the cut from 24 to between 12 and 15 players. His skills and style are much like several other players selected to try out.
Between Anthony, Marion and even Joe Johnson (Krzyzewski did not realize how good Johnson was until he witnessed the swingman in person) Jamison runs into a game of numbers. The fact that Anthony's college coach for one season, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, is one of Krzyzewski's assistants stacks the deck in Anthony's favor.
"Compared to these guys, I'm not as much of a household name, I have to be honest about that," Jamison said. "But you come in this week and do some good things, it might change their mind. I'm going to do everything possible to make this team. I want to surprise a lot of people."
Arenas, meanwhile, is a virtual shoo-in. Coaches and Team USA officials privately marveled during the team's first workout here Tuesday afternoon. Arenas was part of a defensive unit that included Marion, Kirk Hinrich and Bowen, defensive stalwarts who all rotate to the ball quickly and flail their spindly arms like long sleeves flapping in the wind on a clothesline. During a drill in which the defense applied full pressure in the half court, an offense of NBA superstars could not score let alone complete routine passes to the post and wing.
The thinking is that when Arenas does not have to expend so much of his energy to create offensively, he has the speed and tenacity to be a much better defender than any NBA regular season in Washington will allow at the moment.
"I took one shot yesterday" in practice, Arenas said. "We have so many scorers that I'm just trying to run the floor, pass the ball around, create for others and play tough defense. Other than that, we need spot-up shooters. I can play the Chauncey [Billups] role that he has in Detroit. That's where they're going to need me.
"I'll pressure the ball at full court. And if things break down, I can pull my range out so far that a lot of people can't leave me. That's what's going to help out this team."
Arenas is taking special notice of how far his career has come the past two seasons. Especially from those early, losing days he and Jamison shared in the Bay Area.
"You look at Antawn," Arenas said. "His best years, stat-wise, were at Golden State. He went from averaging 24, 25 to 23 to becoming a sixth-man award winner in Dallas. The next year, he joins us and becomes an all-star. Now he's here. It goes to show: It's not what you do, it's how you do it."
He paused and smiled and clutched his No. 21 Team USA jersey again. "It's kind of funny two players from that Warrior team are here representing the U.S.," Arenas said. "I mean, I wouldn't have guessed it."