A long time ago in an era that feels far, far away, the United States was regarded as the most fearsome basketball force on the planet. Led by hoops deities like Bird, Magic and Jordan, the Americans steamrolled through the first NBA-sanctioned Olympics in 1992, trouncing opponents by an average of 43.8 points a game.
That dominance continued four years later in Atlanta, where a Dream Team led by top scorers Scottie Pippen, David Robinson and Reggie Miller went 8-0 with a margin of victory of 32.3 points.
By the end of the 1990s, however, basketball had gone global. Perhaps it was the lure of NBA riches or just the simplicity of the sport (find a partially deflated ball and erect a circular rim some 10 feet in the air and you have yourself a game), but basketball's popularity exploded. Even though the United States secured another gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Games, it was one errant Sarunas Jasikevicius three-pointer away from losing to Lithuania in the semifinals.
The damage had been done. With professional players' interest in making a six-week (and unpaid) commitment to the Olympics fading, USA Basketball completely unraveled in 2002 when a team composed primarily of second- and third-tier NBA stars bickered and battled its way to a sixth-place finish at the World Championships. Two years later, the Americans were humbled again as they officially relinquished their title of Olympic champions when they stumbled to a bronze medal in Athens. In '06, a supposedly revamped U.S. roster didn't fare much better at the World Championships, allowing Greece to post 101 points in the semifinals and shove the Americans back to the bronze-medal podium.
So on the eve of America's latest attempt to return to basketball prominence, we pose the question: How in the world is it going to do it? Here are four keys to an American victory at the 10-team FIBA Americas tournament in Las Vegas, where two berths in the 2008 Beijing Games are on the line.Play your shooters
What do the numbers 31.4 and 36.9 have in common? They are the three-point shooting percentages of the U.S. teams in the '04 and '06 international competitions, respectively. This summer, however, USA coach Mike Krzyzewski has two of the NBA's most dangerous three-point shooters in Michael Redd (career 39.2 percent) and Mike Miller (39.8 percent). Coach K also has a proven clutch shooter in Chauncey Billups, who also has the potential to extend or break a zone defense and open up the floor for the U.S. slashers.Don't fall in love with star power
This isn't fantasy basketball. Adaptability is key in international competition, where defenses are granted much more latitude and offensive screeners are allowed to slide like the paddle in Breakout. Tyson Chandler might not bring much to the table offensively, but he is an active defensive player who wreaks havoc on the offensive glass (an NBA-best 4.4 offensive boards per game last season). Krzyzewski needs to focus on finding the most effective lineups and not worry about who is the more talented player.Play Jason Kidd
Sorry, Lawrence Frank, but the Americans' best shot at gold is if Kidd is on the floor for 30-plus minutes per game. The 34-year-old Kidd is one of just two players in the world capable of single-handedly changing the complexion of the game (the other is Canadian). There is a reason Kidd is 28-0 in international play -- he's unselfish, a tremendous game manager and a respectable shooter. No one on the U.S. roster has comparable skills. With Kidd on the floor, U.S. players will likely find themselves with layups in situations where they would ordinarily be stuck taking jump shots.Let Kobe be Kobe
Kobe Bryant, making his first appearance in a USA uniform, is the wild card. Bryant is exceptional at knocking down tough shots in traffic, which is exactly where he will be when teams open the competition sagging into their zones. But a bad shot for Paul Pierce or Stephon Marbury isn't necessarily a poor one for Bryant, who has proved time and again that he is capable of making circus shots on a regular basis. Don't rein him in. Besides, with the veteran leadership from Kidd and Billups in place, don't expect Bryant to launch too many wild attempts -- unless he's absolutely certain he can make them.