USA Basketball Wins Another Olympic Gold; LeBron, Kobe, Carmelo and KD Keeping America On Top
Michael Wilbon looks at Team USA’s dominance at Olympic Basketball after being forced to regroup with top NBA stars:
LONDON — You see the back-to-back Olympic gold medals, the 50 straight Team USA victories in international play the past six years. You see the return to dominance of the United States in men’s basketball and it’s easy to forget how depressingly far down the program was in 2004, when the Americans lost three times in the Athens Olympics, and in 2006, when the U.S. lost to Greece.
LeBron James didn’t forget. He was on those teams that lost, that were humiliated. But Jerry Colangelo and then Mike Krzyzewski told LeBron that Team USA needed him to be part of the country’s effort to reclaim international basketball. “It was the lowest point, 2004 … a long road,” LeBron said Sunday, eight years — and basketball light-years — later. “I’m happy to be able to say I was a part of us being able to get back on top.”
As good as the U.S. is again — remember, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh andDerrick Rose are injured and didn’t come to London — it’s easy to make the argument that the road back might have hit a U-turn if LeBron hadn’t gone all-in. And not just because he scored 19 points, grabbed seven rebounds and handed out a team-high four assists in 30 foul-plagued minutes. Kevin Durant had more points (30) and rebounds (nine) and Kobe Bryant had a nice all-around game; both were needed in Team USA’s 107-100 victory over Spain.
But LeBron, along with Carmelo Anthony, figured so heavily in the bigger picture of re-establishing U.S. basketball, both on the court and as a brand. Anthony recalled Sunday how the two stood on the court by themselves after losing to Greece in the World Championships in Japan on Sept. 1, 2006, watching Greece advance and celebrate at their expense.
“Coach K had already sat us down and we talked for hours, I think it was in Las Vegas,” Anthony said. “He said the rebuild was going to be a long journey, but a fun journey, and that we should try to block out 2004 … if we remembered it at all, let it motivate us. … [Losing to Greece] was such a bad feeling. We talked again as soon as we got back to the States, and I asked LeBron, ‘Are you locked in?’ And he said, ‘I can’t help but be locked in.’ We lost in ’06, but we knew we’d started something.”
That ’04 team played poorly and was perceived poorly, from the moment Team USA lost an early game to Puerto Rico by 19 points. It was said the members of that team weren’t appreciative, that they didn’t conduct themselves well, didn’t know what it meant to be an Olympian. Many of the accusations were lies; the problem was the two most prominent members of that team, veterans Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury, came with years of baggage, and no matter how hard they played or engaged with people, they were going to be seen as trouble.
LeBron, who was 19 at the time, was part of an absurdly young team, which included Anthony (who was 20), Emeka Okafor (21), Amare Stoudemire (21) and Wade (22). Asked about the ’04 Olympic team Sunday, LeBron said in as diplomatic a way as possible, “There was a different attitude on that team towards the game and what it meant. We were just putting on the uniform and thought that two or three weeks of practice was going to” enable the U.S. to walk out and beat the best international teams.
Colangelo, the director of USA Basketball, was less diplomatic when he said of the youngsters, “They probably shouldn’t have been there. They weren’t quite ready and didn’t yet deserve it.”
But Colangelo and Coach K knew several of those players would deserve the honor in time and would be ready to assume the responsibility, starting with LeBron, who said Sunday, “Coach K went to Melo, D-Wade and me and said, ‘I need you to make a commitment to … figuring out a way to get USA Basketball back on top.'”
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