With its star power and the smell of success, the expanding player pool became a recruiting tool in its own right; USA Basketball no longer found itself in the role of supplicant, and veterans such as Jason Kidd (now of the Dallas Mavericks) and Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers) signed on. The prospect of exposing oneself to the Chinese market, home to more NBA fans than the U.S. has people, surely helped too. Says USA Basketball executive director Jim Tooley, "It's in vogue again to be playing for your national team."
There have been stumbles along the way. Two summers ago at the world championships in Japan, Greece, a team without a single NBA player, beat the U.S. in the semifinals with a flurry of high pick-and-rolls, an NBA staple. "It's been overanalyzed," Colangelo says of that game. "There were six minutes [during which] they made every shot and we missed free throws. But it might have been the best thing to happen to us. We kept pounding on our guys that the international gap had closed and we needed to respect every opponent."
The coaching staff learned too. "We didn't know the international game well enough," says Krzyzewski, the coach at Duke since 1980. "[Greece] played with a physicality and intensity that our guys weren't accustomed to, and because we were young, it knocked us back. We now have the athletic ability and versatility to handle that." Krzyzewski will consider playing more zone, and he'll be deploying players who are more rugged, versatile and experienced. The additions of Kidd and Bryant have helped nudge the team's average age up to 26.1.
But even at the 2006 worlds, Colangelo and Krzyzewski could point to a remade culture. In contrast to the crowds in Athens, the Japanese cheered the Americans. And the U.S. players in turn cheered each other. "From Athens we learned we need time to develop camaraderie," Krzyzewski says. "We have to be committed to one another before we can be committed to the team. We're developing a program, not 'selecting a team.' No one ever 'selects a team'; you select people and hope they become a team."
That process continued last summer, as the third-place finish at the worlds forced the U.S. to qualify for Beijing. What at first looked to be a chore seems more and more like a blessing. Outside shooting, ball movement and a sense of urgency went missing in Athens; during the FIBA Americas qualifying tournament last July, the U.S. shot 47% from beyond the arc and collected assists on 68.3% of its baskets, feeding off the keynote struck when, on the first possession of the first game, its most celebrated player, Bryant, hit the floor for a loose ball. The Americans won all 10 games, by an average of 39.5 points. "We have the infrastructure, the buy-in, the changed culture," says Colangelo. "The bottom line is on us: We need to finish the job and win."
THE U.S. will never be able to duplicate the continuity and stability of some other national-team programs. When Argentina won the gold in Athens, 10 of its players had been together for at least five years. But, says Tooley, "we're getting as close as we can." Compared with the 15 practices and six exhibitions the 2004 team logged before the Games, the core of the '08 team will have worked out at least 70 times and played 29 games when it faces China in its opener on Aug. 10. Last summer's starting lineup of Kidd, Bryant, James, Anthony and Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard returns intact.
"Our goal is to win a gold medal and be humble about it," says Kidd. "And if we do win by 50, to make sure it's because we're playing the right way."
During the Olympic qualifier last summer, after Bryant hit the floor for that loose ball, he was whistled for traveling, in accordance with FIBA rules that are strict on that point. "Our tendency the summer before would have been to start yelling, 'Hey, we're getting screwed,'" Krzyzewski says. "But instead of bitching and moaning, we were more like, 'Well, that's a travel. We didn't know that.'"
There's something to be said for humility. Until an athlete bows his head, after all, no one can hang a gold medal around his neck.
Get daily reports from Chris Mannix on the U.S. men's team's training camp in Las Vegas at SI.com/Olympics.