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Team USA Is Already on Defensive

Recent struggles in international play could make the Spurs' Bowen a key figure on the team.

July 20, 2006|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Even with Kobe Bryant elsewhere recuperating from minor knee surgery, there were many faces at the USA Basketball national team training camp that opened here Wednesday far more famous than Bruce Bowen's.

LeBron James is here. Carmelo Anthony. And Dwyane Wade, just one month removed from being the most valuable player of the NBA Finals for the Miami Heat.

But it is Bowen's presence that might tell more than any other about how the U.S. team will try to regain its glory after doing no better than a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics.

Bowen has never been on an NBA All-Star team. His career average is 6.5 points. He wasn't drafted out of Cal State Fullerton and played in the Continental Basketball Assn. and France before making it in the NBA.

But Bowen has been on the NBA all-defensive team six times -- three times on the first team -- and he has two NBA championship rings with the San Antonio Spurs.

As Jerry Colangelo, managing director of the senior national team, likes to say, "We said from the get-go we're not going to pick an All-Star team."

There are 24 players on the roster, and 12 will represent the U.S. in the FIBA World Championship in Japan beginning Aug. 19.

"They may not be the 12 best players," cautioned Mike Krzyzewski, the Hall of Fame coach from Duke who is the U.S. coach. "It's how they adapt to the system, and how they react to one another, that will be a big thing."

Krzyzewski has a long haul ahead of him on the national team. In 2008 he will become the first college coach to coach the U.S. Olympic team since NBA players made their debut with the original Dream Team in 1992.

The players were hand-picked to try to solve some of the glaring weaknesses of recent U.S. international efforts -- outside shooting and defense. "In the [2004] Olympics, we gave up 83 points a game and scored 88 points a game," Krzyzewski said. "I think our most important emphasis has got to be on team defense."

There is a decidedly collegiate feel to Krzyzewski's camp, the first under a revamped system in which players and coaches make a three-year commitment to the national program to prepare for the world championship and Olympics.

"These guys are all going to be on the team whether or not they make the 12 that plays," Krzyzewski said. "It's not tryouts. In tryouts, someone gets cut. No one is going to get cut from this team."

The decline of the U.S. from the heights of international basketball -- including a sixth-place finish in the 2002 world championship in Indianapolis -- stemmed in part from the failure of an All-Star system that many players opted out of in 2004, including Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant.

Bryant's decision to play for the U.S. this time was welcomed, but he's a late dropout for this summer after his recent knee surgery, though he will remain part of the Olympic plans. He is expected to visit camp and accompany the team on part of its Asian tour.

"I love Kobe. I wish he was here," Krzyzewski said. "But Kobe's not going to be able to play. My responsibility right now is to concentrate on what is, not what if."

Paul Pierce and J.J. Redick also have been excused for the summer because of injuries. Lamar Odom, whose infant son died last month, will sit out, as will Chauncey Billups and Michael Redd, who are in training camp but will not play in the world championship because of family commitments.

"You're sad for Lamar," Bowen said. "Other guys, hey, they felt they needed to take care of whatever they felt they needed to take care of. I can't judge. I don't know their situations.

"It's not just about one guy or two guys falling off. We have other guys here that are more than willing to represent the country."

That commitment is significant. After this week's camp, the players will return a week later for another week of training and an Aug. 3 exhibition against Puerto Rico, which beat the U.S. Olympic team by 19 points in its opening game in Athens in 2004. Then there's an exhibition tour to China and South Korea before the final roster must be named for the two-week world championship.

"We've got more training than we had in 2004, so that should help us," said James, who has become an NBA star since playing only a small role in the 2004 Olympics. "I'm very excited to have all these guys here. Guys made a commitment."

Anthony, likewise, was only a bit player in 2004.

"We want to get USA basketball back on the map," he said. "I heard some other countries just look at us and say 'OK, we're going to beat them.' Now we get a chance to go back and redeem ourselves."

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