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ATHENS | 2004 11 DAYS

August 02, 2004|J.A. Adande | Times Staff Writer

So far, most of what we know about the 2004 USA men's basketball team is what it isn't.

It's not the Dream Team. USA Basketball thankfully retired that moniker two Olympics ago. And as original 1992 Dream Team member Michael Jordan once said: "There's only one Dream Team. The rest are duplicates."

It's not the unbeatable, overwhelming favorite to win the gold medal. Not after the United States' last entry in major international competition limped away with a sixth-place finish in the 2002 world championships.

It's not the best collection of active American NBA players. It can't be when it lacks Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Shaquille O'Neal.

But after those players and Ray Allen, Mike Bibby, Elton Brand, Vince Carter, Richard Hamilton, Jason Kidd, Karl Malone, Kenyon Martin, Jermaine O'Neal and Ben Wallace either turned down or withdrew from spots on the team, here's what's left: the closest thing to the days when U.S. collegians ruled the basketball world.

This is their chance to show that the young can get it done. The average age on this team is 23.6. Five players -- Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Emeka Okafor, Amare Stoudemire and Dwyane Wade -- would either be in college or fresh graduates if they had gone to school for four years. And they'd make a pretty good NBA starting lineup.

On top of that, the NBA's most valuable players in 2001 (Allen Iverson) and in 2002 and 2003 (Tim Duncan) are represented.

Rounding out the squad are Carlos Boozer, Richard Jefferson, Stephon Marbury, Shawn Marion and Lamar Odom

"We look at all these kids," Coach Larry Brown told reporters at the team's training camp in Jacksonville, Fla. "With all the guys that couldn't play because of injuries or getting married or having new additions to their family or guys legitimately worrying about their safety, these guys all want to be here, they all want to represent their country and they're all excited to be Olympians, and I think we ought to focus on that."

And the players are focusing on the collective goal.

"All the individual stuff is going out the window," Marion said. "It's a team."

Brown just won an NBA championship by molding the Detroit Pistons into a cohesive unit in his first year coaching there.

Now in a race against time with the U.S. Olympic squad, he hammered home the importance of unity when he benched Iverson, James and Stoudemire for an exhibition game against Puerto Rico Saturday after they arrived late for a team meeting.

Iverson, the oldest player on the team at 29, is a co-captain. He spent the first week of practice saying his old, practice-phobic ways were behind him and how much he appreciated Brown, with whom he frequently clashed when they were together in Philadelphia. That crumpling sound is all of those "Meet the New Allen Iverson" stories being wadded up and tossed into the trash can.

The teamwide image problem is that it can't be expected to live up to the standard of the original Dream Team.

The first group of U.S. pros, featuring Jordan, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, John Stockton and Malone, obliterated the competition by an average of 44 points in Barcelona.

The 1996 Olympic team, adding players such as Shaquille O'Neal and Gary Payton to holdovers Stockton, Malone, Scottie Pippen and David Robinson, won by an average of 32 points but seemed like a disappointment.

By the 2000 Games in Sydney, the victory margin had dwindled to 20 points, including a two-point escape against Lithuania.

Some basketball observers predicted that the U.S. professionals' first loss in Olympic competition would come in 2004.

The most likely candidates:

* Lithuania. The 2003 European champion brings size and shooting.

* Serbia and Montenegro. This team features Predrag Drobnjak and Marko Jaric, who played with the Clippers, but it will be hurt by Peja Stojakovic's recent decision to sit out the Olympics.

* Argentina. Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs led the team that ended the United States' 58-game winning streak in 2002.

Although they are deficient in talent, the advantages the other countries hold are that their cores have often played together for several years, and in some cases they began practicing a month earlier than the Americans this summer.

The NBA season lasts longer, and the league gives its players some time off after the NBA Finals end in June.

Brown is putting his team through two-a-day practices, but he is just as concerned about the team's mental state.

"We wanted everybody to be aware that the other people we are playing are really good and getting better," Brown said. "We talked about the fact that their whole goal is to win an Olympic gold medal or a world championship, while ours is to win an NBA championship. We've got to keep that in perspective."

The Americans' edge is in their athleticism, particularly Iverson, Wade, Jefferson, Marion, James and Stoudemire. More than any other team, they'll be the embodiment of the Olympic motto "swifter, higher, stronger."

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