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Had they been raised, say, 20 years earlier, Paul and his London teammates wouldn't have been nearly as tight. When Larry, Magic and Michael were coming up, young players knew little of their rivals across the country. But that changed when the massive profits generated by the NBA during the heyday of the original Dream Teamers began to trickle down to create a new market for teenage basketball stars. James was on the cover of SI as a 17-year-old. Paul, Anthony, Durant and others were widely known in basketball circles while they were in high school. They were held up to scrutiny and expectations that Larry, Magic and Michael never knew as youngsters, so they leaned on one another and created a support system.
"That's what makes our friendships so unique and genuine," said Paul. "These are a lot of my closest friends that I've grown up with, who are like family to me. I can talk to them about things that I can't talk to my brother or my parents or my wife about. So it's great to have that advice from somebody who's been through it."
Their relationships have raised questions about their willingness to compete against each other. "Commentators talk about it all the time—'I can't believe these guys are friends, they go to dinner.' My thing is that it is a different time, a different day and age," said Paul. "There are so many camps now. Kids start playing USA Basketball when they're 15 years old, traveling and playing against other countries. So you have no choice but to be friends with the guys. You see guys every other weekend for six years before you even get to college. You have to know where to draw the line."
The ultimate example is Paul's friendship with Williams, against whom he competes annually for the unofficial title of best NBA point guard. "Everybody always is trying to make us sworn enemies, but when we ..., " Paul said, stopping mid-sentence. "Speak of the devil!" he said, nodding across the lobby where Williams peeked out from behind one of the thick columns. He faced Paul with an unabashed smile and wave, as if they were high schoolers in biology class.
"We push each other—we do," Paul continued. So how is Paul able to put aside their rivalry? "Because he's a great guy that has four kids, four of the cutest kids I've probably seen in my life," said Paul. "When we were in college, we worked the Nike All-American camps together."
That growing sense of fraternity made it feel natural for James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to decide to play together for the Heat in 2010. (The Big Three would have been reunited on the U.S. team last week if not for injuries to Wade and Bosh.) If that controversial decision to unite in Miami represented the downside to the new generation, then the upside was on display in London.
When they were losing to Lithuania in the fourth quarter, when their shots weren't falling and when their defense was being blistered by the pick-and-roll, the American players didn't withdraw from one another. "No finger-pointing—it was really positive," says Krzyzewski. "I really learned something about them."
THE U.S. lost in the quarterfinals of the 2002 world championships and in the semis at the '04 Olympics with dysfunctional teams of All-Stars. In '05, USA Basketball asked Jerry Colangelo to take over as chairman of the men's team. Krzyzewski's inexperience in the NBA was viewed by some as a weakness, but Colangelo hired the Duke coach because he viewed his impartiality as a strength. And so the players don't worry about NBA gamesmanship or ulterior motives when dealing with Krzyzewski or with Colangelo, a former owner of the Suns who sold the franchise in '04. "This team has terrific camaraderie," says Colangelo. "It's a big, big difference from '04 to '12."
The often destructive issues of the NBA—including money—have relatively little influence on this U.S. team. The players receive no salary from USA Basketball and are participating by choice. They receive calls and messages year-round from Krzyzewski and Colangelo without fear of tampering. It is a team built upon relationships and trust.
"You really do need to be friends in order to play well," says Durant. "If you don't like a person on the court, I don't think it really works. So the good thing about this team is that we all like each other, we all respect each other and we've been knowing each other on a personal level for more than two or three weeks. That's where the chemistry comes from."