Dream Teamers talk of USA's chances
By SAM AMICO
Larry Bird still believes in U.S. basketball. So do Chris Mullin and Lenny Wilkens.
That says a lot when you consider all three were members of the 1992 Dream Team that cruised to the Olympic gold medal -- Bird and Mullin as players, Wilkens as an assistant to coach Chuck Daly. It also says a lot when you consider how Team USA has fared lately, finishing a disappointing fourth and third in the previous two international competitions.
All of it reminds Bird of when he was still contemplating whether to join the first Olympic team to consist of professionals.
“Someone told me, ’Larry, you need to join that team. The rest of the world is catching up,’” Bird says today.
Bird laughs at the memory, but the basketball prophet he spoke to was right -- the rest of the world has caught up, and then some. Team USA’s competition is now tough, talented and confident.
“That’s why it is important for the U.S. to get out and dominate from the start,” Bird says. “You can’t let the rest of the world keep it close and give themselves a chance to win.”
Team USA will get its next opportunity at the FIBA Tournament of Americas, beginning Aug. 22 in Las Vegas.
Unlike American teams of the past, this summer’s lineup features Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant -- who joins holdovers such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire.
“Kobe is probably the best player in the world, so he should make a major difference,” Bird says. “I see him doing the same thing for today’s team that Michael Jordan did for us back in ‘92.”
Wilkens is also optimistic about the Americans’ chances with Bryant, having watched a few practices during mini-camp in July. But as a Hall of Fame point guard, Wilkens is particularly upbeat about the additions of veterans Jason Kidd and Chauncey Billups.
“Those guys know how to get the ball to people,” Wilkens says. “When you play against international competition, you’re going to face a lot of zone defenses. So it’s important to keep the ball moving. Kidd, Billups and Deron Williams are all very good at that.”
Meanwhile, Mullin says today’s team should benefit from the majority of the roster having spent time together in practices and previous tournaments.
“If they play together, they won’t need to worry about what style they face,” Mullin says. “The tempo can be fast-break, half-court … it won’t matter. If they can play together, they have the talent. That much is obvious, because (USA basketball senior team director) Jerry Colangelo has done a great job of assembling the team.”
Along with Bryant, Kidd and James, other key members include Michael Redd, Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard. The team will again be coached by Mike Krzyzewski of Duke University -- who receives a helping hand from assistants Mike D'Antoni (Suns), Nate McMillan (Trail Blazers) and Jim Boeheim (Syracuse University).
“It doesn’t hurt that a lot of these guys have been there before,“ Wilkens says. “Obviously, the ‘92 team had never played together before, nor did the Olympic team in ‘96 (for which Wilkens was head coach). So you don’t want to make excuses for the way things have gone lately. But getting in extra practice time only helps a player familiarize himself with teammates and the coaching staff.”
Bird and Mullin each mentioned another key factor for the U.S. -- adjusting to the time of the games. In the NBA, games consist of four
12-minute quarters. In international play, it’s 10-minute quarters for 40 minutes overall.
“That’s why it’s so important to establish a tone early,” Bird says. “There’s also the actual style of game that’s played in Europe and throughout the world. It’s a different game than what’s played here. But we’re seeing that it’s effective, and that (the U.S.) will need to adjust.”
If all of those things happen, then basketball glory should be returned to the U.S. Just take it from the former Dream Teamers.
“There is a lot to be said for the commitment made by a player and his pride in winning,” Wilkens says. “I think with this team those things are in place, and that should mean good news.”