In 1992, Team USA basketball unveiled the Dream Team; led by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird, they easily beat opponents by an average of 44 points per game, earning a gold medal and cementing the U.S.'s reputation as king's of the court in the process. So, naturally, we assumed that the U.S. would always win the gold medal, right? But as the game of basketball spread throughout the world, engaging such international players as the Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki and the Houston Rockets' Yao Ming, the talent gap shrunk between home-grown and foreign players. At the same time, there was a complacency in our national program, a sense that we could slap 12 all-stars together, give them a few weeks to practice, and they could dominate any country's best effort.
Things didn't exactly work out that way.
After a 6th place finish at the 2002 FIBA World Championship and a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics, the program was completely overhauled. Jerry Colangelo was named the Managing Director of the Senior National Team, and he changed everything, first having players commit for three years to participate, building a talent pool deep enough to select different rosters for different international competitions, and hiring Coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke University and a respected team of assistants. Oh, and he got LeBron James and Kobe Bryant to get on board. That helps, too.
At the official unveiling of Team USA a few weeks ago at Rockefeller Center in NYC, the star-studded roster spoke of respect - how to earn it back for the states, allowing them to take their rightful place back on top of the world's international basketball hierarchy. No one claimed ownership over the title, "Redeem Team," but others refused to say it wasn't an apt description of this group. Many have compared this roster to the original Dream Team, but the players have been resistant to such comparisons. This is their team, and they will make their own way.
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Carlos Boozer will have to bang under the boards and help set the defensive tone. "You can be a little bit more physical, which I like, a lot," says Boozer, the bruising power forward from the Utah Jazz. He'll have to be able to knock down open looks, since the roster is loaded with some of the best playmakers in the game that are bound to get him opportunities. "You'll be open with guys on our team like Kobe and LeBron creating for everybody," says Boozer. "You've got Chris Paul, D. Will, J. Kidd. You're going to get a lot of open shots playing with these guys." Boozer's teammate, Deron Williams, is likely the third-string PG, behind the Hornets Chris Paul and Jason Kidd. Talk about depth.
The Toronto Raptors big man Chris Bosh has good range for anyone, much less a guy nearly seven feet tall. Although there's plenty of alpha personalities on the team, Bosh isn't worried about who's going to take the reins on this squad. "Different guys at different times will do different things," says Bosh. "Might have a guy that's vocal on defense, might have a guy who's vocal on offense, might have a guy who's vocal off the court." When asked, Bosh spoke of the Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard as the strongest guy on the team. "That's one dude you don't want to cross when you're in the paint," he says. "I know that personally."
Most of the players interviewed said they felt like Howard was the strongest guys on the team, and it's hard to disagree. At 6'11", 265 lbs, he's a monster, but he's extremely modest. "The strongest?" he says. "I don't know. I just do pushups and that's about it." Imagine him as a fighter, and you've got every pugilist's worst nightmare. "If I could do any other sport in the Olympics, I would box," says Howard. "If there was one sport I'd like to see in the Olympics, it's MMA fighting." On or off the court, Howard thinks the changes to the program have strengthened the guys. "To be around each other for three summers, to learn about each other off the court, I was just happy to be a part of it."
The veteran of the team, J. Kidd is an astonishing 44-0 in international competition, and felt like he needed to be a part of Team USA's resurgence. "I called Jerry to see if he had room," says Kidd. "I believe in this team. I believe we'll go undefeated." Kidd's only in his 30s but he's considered old my league standards, which has allowed him to change his perspective on how his teammates train. "These guys are young, so they don't need to do too much of that lifting and running," he says. "I don't even think LeBron lifts, and I have to figure out why and how." In fact, Kidd said that LeBron was the strongest guy on the team. "He probably doesn't even know what a weight is," adds Kidd.
LeBron isn't worried about free agency, contracts, extensions: none of it. As of right now, all he cares about is basketball in Beijing. "The only thing I'm doing is getting prepared to win a gold medal," says James. When asked about Kidd's take on his strength, he deflected the compliment. "I think Dwight Howard is the strongest guy on the team," he says. "I've just been working hard, training to get ready for this." James knows that a chance to win a gold medal is rare, and he's relishing the moment. "This right here is going to be the greatest summer of my life," says James. He seems ready for it.
At first sight, it looks like Dwyane Wade has put on some solid muscle, which he acknowledges. "Yeah I bulked up," he says. "This is probably the strongest I've been." He doesn't think he's the strongest on the team, however, an honor that seems to be a split-decision win for Dwight Howard. "I'm starting to fall in love with the weight room, because I know it's where I need to be to be healthy." Wade, who's attacking style has left him banged up since winning the NBA title with the Miami Heat in 2006, focused on getting his legs back up to par since calling it quits early last season. He'll need to be at his best for this team to compete with some of the best teams in the world. Despite his role on the Heat, he'll fill a different void in these Olympics. "I can be a defensive guy, bring defensive pressure," says Wade. You know a team is loaded with Dwyane Wade is their defensive specialist.