Larry Brown stood near center court last week at the University of North Florida Arena, eyes wide behind his wire-rimmed specs. "Time out!" he yelled. "Time out!"
The motion in front of him, 10 NBA players striding swiftly, stopped. "I must be speaking some foreign language," he said, looking directly at Carmelo Anthony, the supremely talented 20-year-old Denver Nuggets star. Anthony, in turn, looked at the floor. Brown explained his transgression: Twice, the 6-foot-8 forward received the ball on the right wing. Twice, he took the available jump shot, the easy option. Twice, he missed.
"No one else on your team touched the ball," Brown said.
These are the kinds of moments Brown relishes -- the tweaking, the refining, the teaching. Yet now, the circumstances are different than they ever have been for Brown, who in June became the first coach to have won both an NBA championship and an NCAA title. Indeed, they are more different than they ever have been for American basketball.
As the U.S. men's national team prepares for its greatest Olympic challenge since a group of college kids brought home bronze, not gold, from Seoul in 1988, Brown must teach a group of professionals -- most little older than college age -- how to forget their prominent roles on their NBA teams and, over the next 27 days, realize the importance of playing together. That, Brown believes, is the only way this U.S. team will achieve the outcome its predecessors took for granted: winning a gold medal.
"We've got a heck of a challenge," Brown said after practice that day. "This is a young team, and we don't have much time together. . . . But if we do things the right way -- if we share the ball and we play defense -- then we have a chance to be pretty good."
The process of becoming pretty good received a setback before the team's first exhibition Saturday, a 96-71 victory over Puerto Rico in Jacksonville. Three players -- Allen Iverson, LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire -- were benched for arriving late for a pregame team meeting.
The U.S. team was to leave Saturday night for four days of training in Cologne, Germany. The team will make training stops in Belgrade and Istanbul before arriving in Athens on Aug. 12 to prepare for its Olympic opener Aug. 15, also against Puerto Rico.
The group that takes the floor in Athens -- where virtually no one will be rooting for it -- will do so in an environment unlike any since NBA players were first allowed to participate in the Olympics a dozen years ago. In 1992, the result was the "Dream Team," an alignment of stars that included, among its 12 players, 10 no-brainers for the Hall of Fame, a team that provided as much celebrity circus as basketball bliss.
"It was like traveling with a rock band," said Dave Gavitt, then the president of USA Basketball, which assembled the team.
In sweeping to the gold, the United States beat opponents by an average of nearly 44 points. Its closest margin in eight games? A 32-point nail-biter over Croatia in the gold medal game. The team was so popular that it never took the same route through the streets of Barcelona more than once, lest fans decipher a pattern.
"I knew the magnitude of the names involved," said Chuck Daly, the U.S. coach in '92. "But literally, I had no idea -- no idea -- it would take off and become the phenomenon that it did. Outside the hotel, [the crowds] were eight deep. We'd drive places, and we'd have five [security] cars surrounding us. It was quite a spectacular sight. I knew, at that point, it was a significant step for basketball."
Novelty gave birth to hype, snaring the greatest names in the sport. Magic Johnson signed up right away. Michael Jordan, who won gold as a collegian in 1984, needed some convincing to try again. Larry Bird, whose balky back caused him to retire later that summer, wanted to be assured he was being invited because he could play, not because of his status as a legend.
"Once those three guys committed," Gavitt said, "we didn't have enough room for everybody that wanted to play. We were able to handpick a team that was, arguably, the greatest ever to play."
Not so this time. No fewer than 14 players -- from Kobe Bryant to Shaquille O'Neal to Kevin Garnett to Tracy McGrady to Vince Carter to Jason Kidd -- declined opportunities to play this summer for a variety of reasons, ranging from injury to fatigue to concerns for their safety overseas. Thus, Brown must teach Anthony and other young players -- the team's average age, 23.6 years, is by far the youngest since NBA players became Olympians -- about the international game, from the wider lane to motion offenses to zone defenses. No one on the team has Olympic experience.
"We've got a lot of doubters out there, just for the simple fact that we're a young team," said Anthony, dripping with sweat after one of the team's twice-a-day workouts this past week. "I don't think a lot of people think that young players can do it. So we've got to prove ourselves."
Yet it is more than the youth of the U.S. team that causes concern about whether it can win gold. The original reason NBA players were invited to international play, through a FIBA vote in 1989, was because other nations already used pros, and international basketball had vastly improved -- to the point where American college players were in the process of being overmatched. The Dream Team changed that, and the result has been a perfect 24-0 record for the United States since.
In the process of achieving a competitive advantage, though, the United States developed an environment among factions of its own players that playing for Olympic gold, particularly after a grueling NBA season, was a chore rather than an honor.
"In a way, I'd like to have seen it continue with our college [players]," said former North Carolina coach Dean Smith, who coached the United States to a gold medal in 1976, "because they were so happy to be there."
Now, romping to victory in the style of the original Dream Team appears over. "The whole sphere has changed," Daly said. In the two Olympics since 1992, the Americans' average margin of victory has fallen by 11 points each time. In winning the gold in Sydney, half of the United States' games were decided by 12 or less. In the semifinals in 2000, the Americans led Lithuania by two in the waning seconds. Sarunas Jasikevicius, a former guard at Maryland, launched a three-pointer. The buzzer sounded. The shot clanked away. The United States survived. Yet a new array of possibilities -- "These NBA guys can be beaten!" -- pulsed through the rest of the basketball world.
Then came Indianapolis, in the summer of 2002. Rarely does the American sporting public pay attention to basketball's world championship, which is contested every four years. But in 2002, the United States lost three of its last four games. It finished -- gulp -- sixth.
"The team chemistry wasn't there," said Shawn Marion of the Phoenix Suns, "and that's what happens."
Gavitt called that performance a "wake-up call." It displayed how much teams such as Argentina, Spain, and Serbia and Montenegro had improved. It also, Gavitt said, reemphasized the declining intensity some NBA players brought to international competition. In 1992, that intensity may not have been necessary. Now, it is.
"Prior to Indianapolis, it was disappointing that we had a generation of players that didn't seem to aspire to [playing internationally] the way players did before them," Gavitt said. "But honestly, that's really endemic to the NBA. It's become more about the individual than the team, and that was reflected in our performance."
Not coincidentally, Marion is the only member of that team back for Athens. The Olympic team members, by now, are tired of hearing about who won't be with them. Anthony, Iverson, James, Stephon Marbury and others jumped at the chance to play. The San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan, who missed the 2000 Games because of an injury, helped recruit new players once others bailed out. To a man, they say they are excited, and that they realize the potential pitfalls.
"The guys who are here," James said, "want to be here. We're committed."
Last week, during a scrimmage against Puerto Rico, the sometimes sloppy Americans called timeout after watching a 10-point lead swiftly whittled to three. As the team headed to the huddle, Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" blared through the speakers at the arena. With memories of the Dream Team now just that -- memories -- it was, perhaps, an apt anthem for this Olympic quest.
"When you have that label across your chest," Iverson said, "you're supposed to win. . . . Regardless if we win every game by one point, [we] just want to win it. . . . If we win every game by 20 points, they're going to say we should've beat them by 30. Whatever we do, it's not going to be good enough, as far as the media [are concerned]. But winning the gold medal is going to be good enough for the country."