If this is it, if this is truly the last great American superpower built for the Olympics, then it’s only fitting LeBron James is around to bid the Dream Teams farewell.
With NBA Commissioner David Stern beginning a campaign to limit Olympic basketball participants to 23 years of age and under beginning with the 2016 Games, this very well could be the Americans’ last roster packed full of NBA superstars.
James will begin his third Olympic tour with Sunday’s preliminary-round opener against France. He witnessed the basketball debacle in 2004 from the bench, where he was primarily a young spectator as Team USA lost three games in Athens and tumbled to the bronze medal.
“That team was put together so fast,” said James, who is seeking his second gold medal this summer. “I never felt like we’d be able to become a team that quick. I never thought we would be a team fast enough to win a gold in ’04.”
He was right. The bronze medal eight years ago remains one of the low points in the Americans’ basketball history and served as the key reason behind the first overhaul in philosophy.
Jerry Colangelo was brought on as chairman of USA Basketball and quickly began studying the programs abroad. It was a bit humbling, considering the sport was founded and perfected in the United States, but Colangelo believed if the United States was to return to its lofty perch as the premiere global power in basketball, he had to find what made programs in places like Spain and Argentina so successful.
Colangelo was intrigued by the continuity of some of the world’s best national programs and returned home seeking similar four-year commitments from NBA stars. As a result, James and Carmelo Anthony are the only holdovers from the ’04 embarrassment still on Team USA today.
“We built a program — not a team — we built a program that would sustain over a period of time,” Colangelo said. “Over these last eight years, a lot of positive things have happened.”
The United States opens Olympic play on Sunday 49-1 in international competition since Colangelo took over. The only blemish was a loss to Greece in the 2006 FIBA World Championship. Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski implored his team to learn the international game better following that loss, and the players have responded.
The roster the Americans will carry into this Olympics will make them easily the most athletic team in the field. What they lack in size — Tyson Chandler is the only true center on the team — they make up in speed and quickness.
Plenty of options
James has played a little center in the exhibition games leading up to the Olympics, and the Americans can flaunt a lineup of Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Anthony and James that would provide matchup nightmares for any team in the world.
Greece stunned the Americans six years ago by running countless pick-and-rolls the Americans inexplicably couldn’t defend. With this team’s athleticism and ability to switch with ease defensively, that’s no longer a problem.
“We haven’t shown all our cards yet,” James said after the Americans’ 22-point win over Spain in Tuesday’s final exhibition game. “We have so many options, so many things we can go to with our team. We have room for improvement and we got more cards to show.”
As for the impending rule change, no one is saying much now. Bryant called the idea “stupid” and Colangelo said he is worried simply about this competition. He’ll sit down with Stern sometime after the Olympics to determine what will happen in the future.
“It’s a long way from saying we’re going to do that and then actually getting there,” Colangelo said. “It’s very political in nature.”
Continuity edge for USA
Krzyzewski indicated an Olympics-wide 23-and-under rule would benefit the Americans even more, since the United States dominates the competition in the lower age levels. Other countries don’t seem to catch up to the Americans until they’re adults.
If the Americans can finish with another gold-medal victory, it will complete a magnificent 20-year run of Olympic dominance that began with the original Dream Team in 1992. What the Olympic team will look like in 2016, at this point, is anyone’s guess.
“We now have players who have been together for a couple of Olympiads, and that says a great deal about continuity,” Colangelo said. “The program is in solid shape. I think the interest in basketball is at an all-time high. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished here.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at https://ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.