Chandler's role crucial for U.S.
Tyson Chandler is the only traditional center on men's Olympic basketball team
Chandler averaged 13.2 minutes and 2.4 points per game in five U.S. exhibitions
Knicks center has bonded with NBA rivals and come to feel importance of Games
LONDON -- The tallest American said, "I don't feel like I'm a star at all."
At 7-foot-1, Tyson Chandler is both an aberration as well as a foundational player for the U.S. men's basketball team, which opens play in the Olympics against France on Sunday at 9:30 a.m. ET. Chandler is the only traditional center on the 12-man U.S. roster, and during the five recent exhibitions he averaged only 13.2 minutes and a team-low 2.4 points.
And yet Chandler will be indispensable to the U.S. in pursuit of a gold medal over the next two weeks. As the current NBA Defensive Player of the Year (with the New York Knicks) whose presence was crucial to the Dallas' Mavericks' 2010-11 championship, Chandler will be needed to call out signals and protect the rim while dealing with opposing big men like Nene of Brazil and the Spanish brothers Gasol, Pau and Marc, both All-Stars in the NBA.
Chandler and his teammates have spent the last three weeks together learning to adapt to the standards of international basketball. Foul trouble kept Chandler on the bench for all but eight minutes of a 100-78 victory over Spain on Tuesday in Barcelona.
"The reason why I'm here is because I'm aggressive on defense and aggressive attacking the glass, and I have to continue to do that," Chandler said. "But I have to be aware of the rules. In the [NBA], you can hand-check in the post with the bent arm, forearm or hand. I was under the assumption that you could get away with that [internationally], but then in the last game I recognized that you can't. The one thing I have to do is keep myself on the floor and make sure the fouls that I do have count, and I can't pick up the silly one."
He was sitting upon a stage Friday at the Main Press Center, a large hall filled to capacity with journalists from around the world. A similar crowd had greeted the original Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. That team was filled with All-Stars and future Hall of Famers -- titles of celebrity that have yet to be associated with Chandler. At Friday's gathering, he told the story of his surprise in 2007 when his agent called to say that USA Basketball was inviting him to try out. Chandler was sitting in a dentist's office, and for once it wasn't the dentist's fault that he wanted to jump out of his chair.
"I never thought it was possible," he said of the invitation that led to his eventual appearance on the 2010 U.S. team that won the FIBA World Championship in Turkey. "The way my career was going at that time, I didn't expect that phone call."
He was invited because the U.S. had realized after its losses of 2002 and '04 that it needed America's best complementary players to fill the court around the normal grouping of stars. An outcome from that change in strategy is that this team is taking on the characteristics of Chandler in terms of his inspiring ability to lead without scoring. The absence of traditional size and low-post scoring means that the U.S. must force turnovers that create easy baskets in the open floor. Minicamps in Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., Manchester, England, and Barcelona have helped pull the members of the team together.
"It gave us an opportunity to go out for dinner and go out around the town and really get to know one another," Chandler said. "A lot of times you play against each other and then across the year you grow a little dislike for one another. I just faced LeBron [James] in the Finals last year, so there's not much love there, and then he knocked us out [in the playoffs two months ago] so it was really not much love there. But you get an opportunity to meet a guy, and it's like, Nice dude. Really nice dude. And now it's like you're very excited that he won his first championship, because he's very deserving. You get a different perspective for somebody off the court."
The other benefit came when the team spent a long weekend earlier this month in Washington, where they met military officers and soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The players heard stories of enormous personal sacrifice and of how the soldiers would be cheering for them during the Olympics. Each player was presented with a flag for him to carry here.
"When you think about playing for your country, you think about the Dream Team, and at first it was all that for me, honestly," Chandler said. "But when we had a chance to go to D.C. and meet with Gen. [Martin] Dempsey and see Scotty Smiley, and guys that have fallen and other guys that came back from Iraq and Afghanistan injured, you realize it's much bigger than that."
It was interesting to see the reaction of the small crowd of international reporters gathered around Chandler as he recalled those meetings in Washington. Several journalists turned away, understandably, because the wars have been divisive and controversial, and Chandler's comments may have sounded jingoistic.
But Chandler was making no political statement. He was referring to the personal sacrifices of the soldiers themselves. Smiley was blinded in both eyes while serving in Iraq. The support of Smiley and other servicemen and women was inspiring to the U.S. players.
"You realize you represent your country and it's bigger than the game," Chandler went on. "You're out there playing for guys like that that have sacrificed so much in life. At that point it all changed for me, and it put things really in perspective.
"I think it made a huge impact on us. I could tell the difference in guys the next day in practice. Before that it was kind of laughs and jokes and this and that; and after that it became really serious. It became, We can't let these guys down. They became our representation of our country to us."
This U.S. team relies on baskets in transition and perimeter shooting; roughly 40 percent of its shots come from the three-point line, which is double the rate of threes that was attempted by the '92 Dream Team. For at least one day during the Olympics it figures that the U.S. won't be converting those threes against a medal contender like Spain, Brazil, Argentina, France or Russia. The gold-medal favorites will need to find another means to prevail, and teamwork and inspiration will become more important than ever, and during such a game it may be someone like Chandler who is cast as a most unlikely star.