IN 1992 they were kids inspired by the Dream Team. Two decades later they have grown up to become leaders of a golden era for international basketball. Pau Gasol and Juan-Carlos Navarro of Spain, Andrei Kirilenko of Russia, Tony Parker of France, Marcelinho Huertas of Brazil, and Manu Ginóbili and Luis Scola of Argentina are all medal contenders in the deepest Olympic tournament since Larry, Magic and Michael sowed the planet for their sport. "What a talented world," says Spurs assistant Brett Brown, the Maine native who is Australia's head coach. "What a good world."
Those players grew up dreaming of the day when they might beat the country that once motivated them. They believed devoutly that teamwork could prevail over the individual talents of the U.S. In 2004 the American stars were upset in the semifinals by Argentina, and even as they won their first four preliminary games in London, there were signs of vulnerability. Last Saturday the U.S. trailed Lithuania 84--82 in the final six minutes before LeBron James, Chris Paul and Deron Williams rescued a 99--94 win.
That performance renewed the hopes of challengers such as Spain and Russia, who had reason to believe they held the fundamental advantage of teamwork. The Spanish, in particular, have been playing together since they were teenaged cadets. During these Olympics they continued their traditions of dining together and playing hands of pocha, a card game, late into the night, while on the court they performed as if the years had taught them to read one another's minds. "It would be no miracle on ice," says Brown of the prospect of Spain's knocking off the U.S. "That is not at all the parallel. These guys are ripe. They have all the pieces, they have the age, they've played together: It's the holy grail of international basketball."
But the Americans have made it clear that while they, too, were influenced by the '92 Dream Team, they've also taken a lesson or two from the issues that tripped up some of their country's less successful squads.
THE NARROW lobby of the hotel that housed the U.S. men's and women's teams in the Mayfair area of London is arranged with brown leather chairs around beige marble columns a yard thick. It is dimmed by sepia lighting and brimming with American accents.
"You were great last night," said Geno Auriemma, coach of the U.S. women's team, as he walked down the hallway last Friday morning alongside men's coach, Mike Krzyzewski.
"Yeah," said Krzyzewski, smiling ironically after his team made a preposterous 29 of 46 threes during a 156--73 win over Nigeria. "Every play I drew up worked."
In a corner of the lobby sat Paul, the 27-year-old Clippers point guard. No NBA star has more high-ranking friendships. Paul is his league's unelected mayor: a person who maintains eye contact, who handshake by handshake makes acquaintances feel like close personal friends. As Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love passed by on their way to breakfast before an 11 a.m. team meeting, each turned and waved with a grin. "All these guys," said Paul, "we've known each other for a long time."
Paul's friendship with LeBron James began when they were 14-year-olds playing in AAU. "When I was in college [at Wake Forest], I would go out there to Cleveland because we talked all the time," said Paul. "He came to a couple of my games. And our families got real close, so now my wife and his fiancée may be closer than me and him."
Durant was a camper at the Five-Star Camp where Paul worked as a counselor; their parents would become friends too. Paul's best friend at Wake Forest was Justin Gray, who had been Carmelo Anthony's roommate at Oak Hill Academy. Andre Iguodala came to Winston-Salem, N.C., to appear at a bowling event for Paul's charity in 2005. Paul met James Harden at the 2009 All-Star Game in Phoenix while Harden was starring at Arizona State, and their rapport grew from there.