Posted: Monday August 7, 2006 2:54PM; Updated: Monday August 7, 2006 3:18PM
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It was 20 minutes after the USA Basketball men's senior national team had easily polished off Puerto Rico in an exhibition Thursday night in Las Vegas, and the players were slowly trickling toward the exits. Plenty of media were there, swarming for sound bites, but despite the presence of an idling bus just yards away, waiting to transport Team USA from the UNLV campus back to the luxe Wynn Hotel, the players were in no hurry to escape.
Shane Battier mentioned having "goose bumps" while running onto the floor earlier. Chris Paul had "chills" from the crowd's "U-S-A" chants. Dwight Howard was so excited to get a USA Basketball uniform that he'd put it on in his hotel room before leaving for the arena and done a few short sprints.
These guys were a team, a group of players with a shared goal of sacrificing and doing whatever it takes to win. There was a lot of talk about that publicly, but there were even more actions off the court to reinforce it.
According to someone who played on Team USA around the turn of the century, things were a little different back then: On an early day of practice before the 2000 Olympics, head coach Rudy Tomjanovic stood before the team, clapped his hands and, after giving a quick motivational speech, announced that practice would be a fast one. "We're only going for an hour, fellas, and that includes 15 minutes of stretching. Let's get out there and do this and get it over with and get outta here."
Assistant coach Larry Brown approached Rudy T and suggested that perhaps they could spend a little more time on practice, installing offenses and honing defense, this being their first time together and all.
"Forget that!" Rudy replied. "We're the USA!"
And so they were. Rudy's team didn't lose, although it won its final two games at the Sydney Olympics by a total of only 10 points. But in many ways, the end of those Olympics signaled the beginning of a long, slow slide for USA men's basketball, as the media quietly stopped applying the "Dream Team" tag. In 2002, George Karl's churlish Team USA finished sixth at the World Championships; in a precursor to his baffling Knicks tenure, Brown led the 2004 guys to a bronze medal, during an Olympics that included a near-violent confrontation with the Spanish coaching staff and Brown's admitting he was using halftime for "teaching." If the coaches seemed overmatched, the players seemed disinterested and, often, disgusted.
During the 2004 Olympics, I wrote here that USA Basketball needed a coach who would stress defense "almost exclusively" and emphasize transition offense. I don't know if USA Basketball boss Jerry Colangelo is a Scorecard Daily reader, but (at least by my standards) the hiring of Mike Krzyzewski to shepherd the squad seems to be a raging success. In fact, last week in Vegas, Coach K said they've done nothing but work on defense, and he wasn't worried about offense because that would come with time.
The core of this team looks to be LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade, with Paul, who's been close to LeBron since their time together on the high school circuit, also stepping up. Bron, Melo and Wade were all on the 2004 team, though none of them started a single game. That 2004 team created matchup problems, but in the wrong way. For instance, Starting an Allen Iverson/Stephon Marbury backcourt was bothersome for opposing defenses, but it worked out worse for Team USA, as other teams just went big and slowed things down, then spread the floor and drove to the rim, either drawing fouls or collapsing Team USA and creating perimeter opportunities.