LAS VEGAS – The Americans turned to him for a knowing nod, a wink, and they understood his eyes were the most discriminating of judges. Magic Johnson had a front-row seat for the American basketball revival, a presence borne of a salute to a Team USA roster honoring the red, white and blue Olympic legacy.
"Right coach, right players," Magic said Thursday night. "Everything is working now."
It is still impossible to tell the collective genius of this U.S. men's senior national team, because this 91-76 victory over Argentina comes with the defending gold medalists gutted of its championship core. Argentina will be in Beijing next year with the stars who were missing at this FIBA America tournament – Manu Ginobili, Fabricio Oberto and Andres Nocioni – and yet they'll have to understand that the dysfunction of Team USA has been replaced with resolve again, with the promise of greatness again. The Americans have regained that look of machinery, defending and shooting, playing tough and playing together.
"They're unbelievable right now," said Argentina big man Luis Scola, who recently signed with the Houston Rockets.
Nobody talks about Dream Teams anymore because that's been forever framed with Magic and his basketball Rushmore of stars in 1992. It was a different time, a different global game. Yet, Magic has watched Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd change everything about the crumbled culture that poisoned this program. The transformation isn't as much about the design of USA basketball director Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski, as much as it's been the will of Kidd and Bryant.
"Once your superstars buy into the team concept, everyone else buys in," Johnson said. "Once Michael (Jordan) and Larry (Bird) bought in, everybody else followed. This team is very focused on defense and that’s what feeds the offense. We're only going to win the gold if we rely on our defense. That's what we did. Once we stopped them, we knew we were unstoppable in our transition game. They're doing the same thing here."
Maybe so, but there are those in the international basketball community still saying: Who are they stopping here? For Team USA, it'll qualify for the 2008 Olympics with a semifinal victory over Puerto Rico on Saturday. For a moment, Michael Redd started to answer the simplest question with a convoluted answer, but rightfully resisted.
Had the United States been tested in this tournament?
"You know …" he started, and then stopped himself.
"No," Redd flatly said.
Redd's right. Still, he and his teammates have found a way to challenge themselves, with their tests coming from within the program. When they want, the Americans can play the most suffocating defense. Kobe has been frightening on the defensive end, liberated with the knowledge he doesn't need to expend as much energy offensively as he would with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Over and over, Team USA turned missed shots and steals into a layup line for most of Thursday night, with Kidd's genius delivering the ball wherever, and whenever, his teammates needed it. For the Americans, Kidd is the closest living thing to Magic, who loves what the New Jersey Nets star has done for the national team.
"It isn't just that he gives the ball to the right guys," Magic said. "He gives it to them in the right places."
The Americans have made it look so easy in Vegas. Resistance has been futile for the skeleton teams out of Brazil and Argentina, but both will undoubtedly return next year with plans of exploiting the U.S.'s half-court defense. Kobe can't cover everyone on the floor, and there's a belief that Team USA is suspect defending the pick and roll. Just spread the floor, throw shooters at them, and lesser talent can still use the international rules to make life miserable for the Americans.
"Everyone on the floor for Argentina, they can all shoot the ball," Colangelo said.
Yes, it appears Team USA has started to restore its standing in the world, but that won't be settled on the Strip this summer. There is a long way to go until Beijing. However, Magic Johnson was in the gymnasium on Thursday night and he delivered his American heirs to Olympic gold the strongest of endorsements by leaping into the air at the Thomas and Mack Center and pumping his fists to the sky. His kind of basketball, his kind of team again.