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For Team USA, what happens in Vegas better not stay there

August 26, 2007|Jim Litke | Associated Press

Just this once, the NBA is hoping that what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas.

A dozen of its top stars and role players are gathered there under the banner of Team USA for most of the next two weeks hoping to lock up a guaranteed spot in next summer's Olympics. Judged solely by their debut -- a 112-69 pounding of hopelessly undermanned Venezuela -- qualifying shouldn't be a problem.

Then again, only the two teams that meet in the FIBA Americas championship game Sept. 2 can book their tickets to Beijing. That Team USA even had to qualify only hints at how far basketball's mightiest superpower has fallen.

Americans once took Olympic gold for granted. That sense of security topped out in 1992, when the U.S. national team in Barcelona included Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan in his absolute prime. The only thing rivals had in common was that some of them showed up wearing Air Jordans.

But something Dream Team coach Chuck Daly predicted before departing turned out to be spot-on. He said kids everywhere else, their imaginations stoked by the display they'd just witnessed, would start dribbling down to the corner using one hand and switch to the other for the walk home -- honing their games the way Americans kids on playgrounds in New York and driveways in Indiana had for decades.

"I remember watching the Dream Team beat everybody by 30-40 points, and even back then wondering how long it would last," NBA veteran and current free-agent Jalen Rose said Thursday. He was the point guard for Michigan's "Fab Five" at the time. A few years into his pro career, Rose had his answer.

"Some people I played alongside were skeptical, since so few foreign guys drafted in the mid-90s panned out," he recalled. "But even guys that were short on ability knew how to play within the team. Then I played [in Indiana] with Rik Smits, who could really play, and like me, he never played for his national team. That's when I thought, 'If there were more like him back home, we got a tough road ahead.' "

Rose's latest reminder of how tough came last season, when he spent most of his time on the bench in Phoenix, backing up Steve Nash, a Canadian and two-time MVP.

"And he's not the only foreign player with a trophy at home," Rose said. "If that didn't change peoples' minds, I don't know what will. Think Dirk Nowitzki or Tony Parker, or all the foreign players who've dominated the draft since 2000.

"They come here knowing how to play together," he added. "And they don't get scared anymore by the red, white and blue on the uniforms."

For all that, the rest of the world still hasn't closed the talent gap. A look at the U.S. roster confirms that. Beginning with Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony and continuing down to the last player on the bench, there isn't a coach in the world that wouldn't swap jobs with Mike Krzyzewski.

For once, though, the roster features as many role players as franchise players, reflecting national team director Jerry Colangelo's philosophy that a team is made up of complementary parts instead of the best ones available. That's something he learned watching the rest of the world play.

It also didn't hurt that this squad has home-court advantage, because the USA could have locked up a qualifying spot at the FIBA World Championships in Japan last August and only managed a bronze-medal finish.

"If we had done our job last summer," Colangelo said recently, "we wouldn't be here."

Still, there's serendipity that Team USA's home-court advantage wound up in Las Vegas.

Other than staging an All-Star game there, the NBA has stayed as far away from Sin City as possible. League rules bar referees from even entering a casino's gaming area, and over the years, commissioner David Stern has rejected repeated overtures to locate a franchise in Vegas.

That didn't stop Harrah's Entertainment from announcing Wednesday that it planned to build a 20,000-seat arena to house an NBA or NHL team. With potentially embarrassing revelations spilling over from the federal case against disgraced referee Tim Donaghy, Harrah's chief executive Gary Loveman shouldn't expect Stern to return his calls any time soon.

But don't think the commissioner won't be looking to Las Vegas for some good news. As much as national pride is on the line, so is the image of his league.

As American failures in international play piled up -- remember the "Abomination in Athens" -- Stern tweaked NBA rules to reward teams that played tough defense, moved the ball and relied on jump shots more than dunks.

That was how Team USA dominated once and the only way they'll do it again.

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