The United States Men's Olympic Basketball team goes into Beijing as one of the favorites to win the gold medal, but for the first time since the 1992 Barcelona Games, they are not the defending champions. As Chris Cox reports, Team USA looks to regain its international dominance by getting long-term commitments from its players and a respect for the international game.
When Team USA won the bronze medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics, it marked the first time since professional basketball players had been allowed to compete in the Olympics in 1992 that the U.S. men did not take home the gold.
USA Basketball decided to make some changes after that disappointing finish four years ago to adapt to the higher level of international competition.
In 2005, Jerry Colangelo came in as the new managing director of USA Basketball and Duke University's Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski was selected to coach the team. Coach Krzyzewski said that Team USA needs to respect the international teams to have success at the Olympics.
"For too long we've been saying it's just our game," said Krzyzewski. "And basically we're not playing the NBA game or the NCAA [collegiate] game; we're playing international basketball. It's really the world's game. We think we're the best at playing that game but, unless we show the respect to the rest of the world that it is the world's game, I don't think we ever will really reach the point that we need to."
It was a huge disappointment - and some would say an embarrassment - that the U.S. men finished third at both the 2004 Athens Olympics and again at the 2006 FIBA World Championships.
Krzyzewski knew that to get back to the top, it would not only take commitments from the best American NBA players, but also those who would buy into a team concept. Players had to be willing to share minutes, scoring and defensive assignments for the good of the team.
In 2007, Team USA was dominant in winning the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament, which was a regional qualifier for the Olympics.
That was the second tournament under Coach Krzyzewski. Krzyzewski hopes that effort will be duplicated in Beijing, as the Americans feel they have something to prove.
"Winning a gold medal, obviously, would be an ultimate honor," he said. "But, I think this group of people - coaches, staff, players - not only want to win a gold medal but they want to be worthy of winning it."
Forward Carmelo Anthony, who plays for the National Basketball Association's Denver Nuggets, still feels the sting of falling short of the Olympic gold medal four years ago. So do his U.S. teammates Dwayne Wade of the Miami Heat and LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Anthony said they decided to work together to make amends.
"We talk amongst each other," said Anthony. "Me, him, and LeBron had said that 'next summer we will be back.' If we got to commit three summers, four summers, we will do it to go back out there and redeem ourselves from what happened in '04, and I think right now we have a great opportunity to do that and put the United States basketball where it's supposed to be, worldwide."
Dwayne Wade said the problem with the 2004 team was that it was not a cohesive unit.
"Me and Carmelo, you know, have been there since 2004 when we was young pups and we got an opportunity to sit and watch a team that wasn't a team, and leaving Athens, you know, we really said 'in 2008, you know, when it's time we want to be respected as a team,'" said Wade.
The other players joining Anthony, Wade, and James are NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP) Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers), Chris Paul (New Orleans Hornets), Jason Kidd (Dallas Mavericks), Carlos Boozer (Utah Jazz), Tayshaun Prince (Detroit Pistons), Chris Bosh (Toronto Raptors), Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic), Michael Redd (Milwaukee Bucks) and Deron Williams (Utah Jazz).
Jerry Colangelo said that choosing those 12 Olympic players was not easy.
"It was a very difficult, difficult selection process," he said. "Because, when you have as many outstanding players as we have in this country, to select a group of 12 is obviously going to leave out a number of outstanding people."
The United States men will begin trying to earn back their respect, and the gold medal, in Beijing on August 10 with their opening group match against Olympic host China.
The other opponents for the Americans in the round-robin portion of the tournament are Angola, Spain, and two teams yet to be determined at a qualifying event in Athens.