Unselfish Team USA follows LeBron's lead
Kobe Bryant missing as Americans repair image
SAITAMA, JAPAN - The expansive train platform nestled alongside the Saitama Super Arena on the northern outskirts of sprawling Tokyo is truly the gateway to the FIBA World Championship.
The vast majority of the spectators arrive via train, and they are greeted with a wave of advertisements.
The most unavoidable is a giant sticker affixed to the floor just past the turnstiles that thousands of feet and eyeballs must cross every day of the mega-tournament.
It is a Nike ad, splayed with the innocuous question: ``LeBron or Kobe?''
It is part of a promotion the shoe giant is running that offers fans a free gift tied to one of the players and is aimed at drawing visitors to the company's Japanese basketball Web site. But, to a more trained Team USA follower, it also might be a basketball metaphor.
Kobe Bryant isn't in Japan with his fellow national team members. Knee surgery last month knocked him out, and he has been recovering and doing charitable work this summer in Los Angeles, though Nike will bring him to Asia soon for promotional work.
With the Americans butchering opponents and rebranding the tarnished image of USA Basketball, is it possible Kobe's absence advanced the team's cause?
The ownership of this edition of the Dream Team quickly ended up in the hands of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony. The overall attitude is really a product of James and Wade, who have founded an unselfish style that is shocking the international basketball world that long ago tagged American stars as snobbish and self-centered.
It was Wade, owner of an NBA Finals Most Valuable Player trophy and a forthcoming ring, who openly volunteered to come off the bench. It is a move that has proved to be brilliant; his entrance when the opposition is huffing and puffing almost always leads to a swing in the score.
The most recent example came Sunday against Australia. Wade ripped off the warm-ups with the score 12-12 and returned to the bench with the Americans up by 20.
Then there is James, whose willingness to share the ball is converting many new fans. He took a mere five shots in the win over Australia and repeatedly set up his teammates when he could have attempted a driving layup he surely would have finished -- or at least drawn a foul.
Amazingly, it has rubbed off. U.S. players are falling over themselves to share the glory as the ``Ugly American'' label starts to fray at the edges.
TNT analyst Steve Kerr wrote this in a column on Yahoo Sports: ``In many ways, James' play in this tournament epitomizes what looks like a revitalization of American basketball. He is helping establish an egoless chemistry.''
Others are expressing similar views.
``I'm surprised at how unselfishly they play,'' Australian guard C.J. Bruton said. ``Everyone likes to get their shots off; these guys get 17-20 shots a game in the NBA. This group takes the shots when they're open and shares the ball. In that way, you could compare them to Dream Team I and II.''
There is no doubt Bryant is one of the best players in the world. He owns three NBA titles and is coming off one of the most prolific scoring seasons in league history. His ability is unquestioned.
Were Bryant on Team USA, however, he probably would have been named a captain, if not the only captain, as one of the oldest and most experienced players. The team wouldn't necessarily have belonged to the three guns from the class of 2003, and the theme, as Bryant's game often suggests, might not have been to share before all else.
``It starts with me. Being the captain, if I'm out there passing up shots to get a better shot, it kind of rubs off on your teammates, and you can see that,'' James said. ``I'm not sure how having Kobe would've worked out. Kobe would've been a big part of our team.''
Kobe's role probably would have been what he does best: score. Wade and James are doing what they do best: lead unselfishly.
The Los Angeles Lakers and coach Phil Jackson tried to make Bryant a cog rather than the centerpiece in the playoffs against the Phoenix Suns. It almost worked, but the plan -- and Kobe -- fizzled in the end.
If Team USA steamrolls to a gold medal, how could the plan for the Olympics in Beijing in 2008 possibly differ from the strategy to allow Wade and James to wear the ``C'' and let them dictate play?
``Right now, we're the leaders,'' James said. ``And my teammates have done a great job following so far.''
Brian Windhorst can be reached at email@example.com. Check out Windhorst's Cavaliers weblog at http://blogs.ohio.com/cavaliers_blog.
I hope kobe won't play for Team Usa. The hate is so strong.