From the beginning you got the idea that this current crop of American basketball all-stars had a dimension that wasn’t part of any previous NBA all-star team that suited up for the United States in the Olympics.
The original Dream Teams had a well-deserved swagger as they signed autographs for their star-struck opponents even as they crushed them. In contrast, the one that stumbled through the Athens Olympic four years ago had, well, I’m not sure, maybe a misplaced feeling of entitlement.
As a result what happened in Athens when the U.S. lost three games and had to scramble to salvage a bronze medal and avoid total embarrassment has been an albatross around the neck of American basketball ever since.
So this current national team, from the outset, has declared its sense of mission as it sets its sights on the Beijing Olympics next month.
That mission – this redemptive journey – begins tomorrow night with an exhibition game against Canada and then continues with a warm-up swing through Asia next week.
It also happens to begin with the U.S. team hobbled a little by various nicks and bruises, not the least of which is a stress fracture in center Dwight Howard’s sternum. This is a team that is already somewhat lacking in a dominant post presence and Orlando’s Howard, at 6-11, 265, is the biggest of the big men.
On top of that, the alternate that Team USA brought up in response to Howard’s injury, center Tyson Chandler, has not joined the team in Las Vegas for practices because of a toe injury.
And the list of the dings – current or lingering or in the after-care stage -- goes on. Cleveland’s LeBron James suffered a mild ankle sprain yesterday. Los Angeles’ Kobe Bryant still has the broken pinky that he has delayed surgery on until after the Olympics. Dwyane Wade is returning from the knee injury that cut short his season in Miami.
Everyone says everything will be fine, that there will be no injury issues in China.
They better think that way because Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski is absolutely right when he says that no one, meaning the media and fans, is going to give the Americans a free pass if perform anywhere as badly as the 2004 version did.
“Hopefully we stay completely healthy,” Krzyzewski was quoted as saying, “but if we don't, we can't make an excuse that we didn't do as well because of an injury.”
In the end, what may allow this Team USA to prevail is its collective determination – whether that springs from patriotism or from pride in the NBA as an institution (albeit the league is becoming increasingly international) or from a sense that basketball, like jazz, is an art form born in America and that the U.S. should always set the standard.
In a Time magazine article that appears tomorrow, James is quoted as succinctly guaranteeing a U.S. gold medal.
More to the point are his more recent remarks that underscore the sentiment that may be the key in this, as Boozer aptly calls it, redemption. “We have a lot to prove, honestly,” James was quoted as saying. “We have to rekindle the flame that we are the best basketball players in the world, and I feel this is our last chance.”