Pete Thamel of the New York Times wrote:
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony were more witnesses to USA Basketball’s meltdown at the 2004 Olympics than they were participants.
The three young stars, fresh off their rookie N.B.A. seasons, barely left the bench as Coach Larry Brown’s dysfunctional team spiraled downward to a third-place finish that became the low point for USA Basketball’s Olympic performances.
“The lowlight was not playing,” James said. “We knew we could have helped our team in certain situations throughout the game. Being away from your family for 38 days and not getting a fair opportunity to play, that was a lowlight for us three.”
Since that embarrassing performance, the entire USA Basketball organization has been rebuilt. The restructured USA Basketball has James, Anthony and Wade as its linchpins.
Jerry Colangelo, the Phoenix Suns’ chairman, was selected as USA Basketball’s managing director in 2005. He installed mandatory three-year commitments to end the revolving door of players cycling through the system, then bailing out of competitions at the last minute.
A sixth-place finish at the 2002 world championships and a bronze medal at the Athens Olympics had exposed as hubris the idea that a handful of American players could essentially walk out on the court and beat foreign teams that had practiced together for years.
“We have to go over and prove to the world that we’re just not high-paid showboat athletes,” Wade said. “We have to show that we know this game and respect this game and know how to play this game the right way. There’s a lot riding on this for the future of USA Basketball.”
Colangelo installed Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski as the coach of the national team and then approached 24 players in face-to-face meetings to invite them to be part of the program. That way, there would be a host of players familiar with the coaching staff, their teammates and the nuances of international basketball.
“This team has been a different team because it’s a team that’s been built for three years,” Wade said. “This is how we’re going to build. This is how we got back to the top of the mountain.”
There is no better way to quantify the revamping of USA Basketball than the amount of time that the team has practiced together.
The 2004 Olympic team practiced together for 20 days before the Athens Games. The core of the team heading to Beijing will have trained, practiced and played together for 89 days in the past three years.
By having a program that now includes more than 30 players, USA Basketball is able to have roster flexibility but still hold a sense of familiarity and stability.
“I think what comes across to me is that there’s a bond that’s taken place among a lot of these players,” Colangelo said. “They’re much more cohesive both on and off the court than they ever were. I think that’s going to pay dividends.”
So far, the results have been solid but not perfect. USA Basketball is 18-1 since Colangelo’s extreme makeover. In 2006 at the world championships in Japan, the United States team won by an average of 20.5 points. But a loss in the semifinals to a Greek team that did not have a single N.B.A. player forced the United States to settle for bronze.
At the FIBA Americas Championship last summer, Team USA went 10-0, with an average margin of victory of 39.5 points. Its final two victories were examples of its progress. Team USA lost to Puerto Rico by 19 points to open the 2004 Olympics, but in the FIBA semifinals, it defeated Puerto Rico by 44. Team USA lost to Argentina by 7 points in 2004, but in the FIBA final, the United States won by 37.
The success carried over here Friday in the opener of the United States’ exhibition schedule, as Anthony and Wade scored 20 points each in a 120-65 rout of Canada.
Aside from continuity, the biggest difference in this United States team compared with 2004 and 2006 is the quality of the players.
The 2004 Olympic team had a chemistry disaster in the backcourt with Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson. The 2006 world championship team started the decidedly unspectacular backcourt of Kirk Hinrich and Joe Johnson for the later games in the tournament.
With the consummate distributor Jason Kidd in the backcourt with perhaps the world’s best player, Kobe Bryant, the starting lineup for Beijing will be appreciably better.
“One of the things people forget a little bit about was that team in 2004 wasn’t the team we would have been, necessarily, the team that we would have fielded, had certain players been available,” Colangelo said. “Kidd and Kobe were two examples. We had some problems sizewise in the backcourt and had lacked a little bit of maturity. The players were all very young.”
Brown’s reputation of being hard on young players carried over to the games in Athens. With Wade, Anthony and James mostly relegated to the bench, Brown relied on a group of mismatched talents like Marbury, Richard Jefferson and Shawn Marion.
“It was very comical,” Wade said of 2004. “You look at it and you shake your head. I look at the roster of that team. How did we take it? Everyone on that team was a good individual player, but when you put them together, it didn’t mix. It was like a bad mix of food.”
And it left a bitter taste in the mouths of the three holdovers. James said he did not know where his bronze medal is. He said he took it to his mother’s house after the Games and had not seen it since. Anthony called the United States’ 2004 performance “embarrassing” and said standing on the platform to accept the bronze medal was a surreal experience. “I didn’t like that feeling,” Anthony said. “I didn’t enjoy that feeling at all.”
Three years of preparation have left the Americans so confident that James issued a guarantee that the Americans would win the gold medal.
He is not the only one with a gold-or-bust mentality. Anthony said the Americans would “have to beat ourselves” to lose.
And if Team USA does climb the podium for gold as expected, Anthony, James and Wade may appreciate it the most because they have seen the depths of American basketball firsthand.
“I’ve been waiting four years for this moment,” Anthony said. “I’ve been waiting four years for this gold medal. It’s going to be special.”