Good as gold?

The Baltimore Sun

The Utah Jazz's Carlos Boozer shows a flair for the dramatic when he refers to Team USA's attempt to restore America to international basketball supremacy as being on the "road to redemption."

But from the very beginning, you got the idea that this current crop of American pro basketball all-stars had a dimension that wasn't part of any previous NBA national team that suited up for the United States in the Olympics.

The original Dream Team had a well-deserved regal swagger as the players signed autographs for their star-struck opponents even as they crushed them. In contrast, the Creamed Team that stumbled through the Athens Olympics 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 scrambled 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 tonight with an exhibition game against Canada and then continues with a warm-up swing through Asia starting 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 team is already lacking a dominant post presence, and the Orlando Magic's Howard, at 6 feet 11, 265 pounds, is the biggest of the big men.

On top of that, the alternate 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. The Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James suffered a mild ankle sprain Tuesday. The Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant still has the broken pinkie he has delayed surgery on until after the Olympics. Dwyane Wade is returning from the knee injury that cut short his season with the Miami Heat.

Everyone says everything will be fine, that there will be no injury issues in China.

They had 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 they perform anywhere as badly as the 2004 version did.

"Hopefully, we stay completely healthy," Krzyzewski said, "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 might allow this Team USA to prevail is its collective determination - whether that springs from patriotism or pride in the NBA as an institution (even though 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 goes on the newsstands today, 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 might be the key to this, as Boozer aptly calls it, redemption.

"We have a lot to prove, honestly," James said. "We have to rekindle the flame that we are the best basketball players in the world, and I feel this is our last chance."

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