The dream renewed

The Baltimore Sun

BEIJING - One team, more dreams than you can count with an abacus.

Even for games that are purely for sport, aside from the political message that is the same from Atlanta to the Forbidden City - Look at our vibrant society! - and the overriding commercial presence, few Olympians ever functioned on as many levels as the NBA stars representing U.S. basketball.

Like the legendary Dream Team at Barcelona in 1992 - well, almost - this one has a fallen banner to raise from the dust ... not to mention an unparalleled marketing opportunity, making this the right team at the right time in the right market.

The Dream Team brought the NBA to a world stage, prompting such a growth spurt that international teams would be sending its successors home in disgrace within 10 years.

This team, the product of three years of development, started with yet another bummer, losing to Greece in the 2006 World Championships.

But no team has come within 10 points in the two summers since, a display of dominance that will get a truer test the next two weeks.

Nevertheless, almost as impressive as what Krzyzewski and managing director Jerry Colangelo have put together on the floor is the spirit they've instilled off it.

In a moving moment caught on video, Magic Johnson, the leading spirit of the Dream Team, was brought in to talk to this one when it was first assembled in 2006.

"You're going to look back, just like I do now ... and man, memories are all you've got left, and friendship," says Johnson, pointing slowly around the room.

"This is what you've got, brothers. Always remember it. Your kids, your grandkids, you're going to be able to tell the story for the rest of your life: 'Man, I had the USA!' "

Showing how the heart-warming blends with the commercial, the footage was shot by an NBA Entertainment crew with behind-the-scenes access for the five-part Nike documentary/commercial - documercial? - "Road to Redemption."

1.3 billion reasons

How many teams get a chance to prove their greatness in an emerging market with a population estimated at 1.3 billion?

This team doesn't just represent the U.S., but it's also the tip of the spear known as NBA China. If there's no prospect of China joining NBA USA soon, there's still a fortune to be made in marketing and TV rights.

NBA China just sold 11 percent of its stock to ESPN and four Far East concerns like the Bank of China for $253 million.

Tomorrow, five Chinese, including Houston's Yao Ming, New Jersey's Yi Jianlian and L.A. Lakers draftee Sun Yue - taken in the second round in 2007 - will play the U.S. in what might be the most watched basketball game of all time, although there's no Nielsen-like ratings service in China to confirm it.

A Yao-Yi, Houston-Milwaukee matchup last November was carried throughout China. There's no data, but the number whispered among TV people is 200 million viewers, more than twice the number that watched last January's record-breaking Super Bowl.

They like us?

At Athens in 2004, U.S. players and coaches bristled as Sarunas Jasikevicius (Maryland) dismissed them after leading Lithuania in its upset ("So what? We came here not to beat the States or any other team, we just came here to fight for the medal.")

Four years later, the Americans' old rival thinks they're entirely different.

"They used to be extremely arrogant and it was kind of a turnoff for the world," Jasikevicius said before a recent exhibition in Macao.

"The first thing I noticed about watching them play against Turkey [on July 31], they were actually pretty friendly and were sort of respectful to the referees. It actually depends on the people themselves, and the roster is completely different from what it was four years ago or even two years ago."

Two years ago, the de facto leader was James, then 22 and, behind the scenes, considered something of a pain.

At 24, everyone agrees it's a whole new LeBron."That was way before I knew what it meant to be an Olympian," he said.

"We grow up thinking about NBA titles. Being an Olympian was something I grew up never thinking about. That's why [in 2004] , I didn't know what it meant. Now I do."

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