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Dreaming bigger than ever

It's not the same as 1992, but this U.S. men's basketball team has a chance to conquer China.

August 10, 2008|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- One team, more dreams than you can count with an abacus.

Even for games that are purely for sport, aside from the political message that is the same from Atlanta to the Forbidden City -- look at our vibrant society! -- and the overriding commercial presence, few Olympians ever functioned on as many levels as the NBA stars representing U.S. basketball.

Like the legendary Dream Team at Barcelona in 1992 -- well, almost -- this one has a fallen banner to raise from the dust . . . not to mention an unparalleled marketing opportunity, making this the right team at the right time in the right market.

The Dream Team brought the NBA to a world stage, prompting such a growth spurt that international teams would be sending its successors home in disgrace within 10 years.

This team, the product of three years of development, started with yet another bummer, losing to Greece in the semifinals of the 2006 World Championships, although as they all say, they learned a lot, it helped them get better, etc.

If Coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff died inside, no one showed it, or as assistant coach Mike D'Antoni says, "We hid it pretty well, huh?"

No team has come within 10 points in the two summers since, an actual display of what may never be recovered -- dominance -- and that will get a truer test in the next two weeks.

Here's how magical this ride has become: This team even thrills itself.

The first time you hear Kobe Bryant and LeBron James say a gold medal is bigger than an NBA title -- which both neglected to mention all these years -- you may want to gag yourself with a spoon.

Bryant and James are, of course, Nike's premier salesmen, and this is definitely a Nike-NBA co-production.

Nevertheless, almost as impressive as what Krzyzewski and managing director Jerry Colangelo have put together on the floor is the spirit they've instilled off it.

In a moving moment caught on video, Magic Johnson, the leading spirit of the Dream Team, was brought in to talk to this one when it was first assembled in 2006.

"You're going to look back, just like I do now . . . and man, memories are all you've got left, and friendship," says Johnson, pointing slowly around the room.

"This is what you've got, brothers. Always remember it. Your kids, your grandkids, you're going to be able to tell the story for the rest of your life: 'Man, I had the USA!' "

Showing how the heartwarming blends with the commercial, the footage was shot by an NBA Entertainment crew with behind-the-scenes access for the five-part Nike documentary/commercial -- documercial? -- "Road to Redemption."

Well, the U.S. is a capitalist society. Now to see where this road actually leads and what this team actually redeems.

1.3 billion more

reasons to be excited

How many teams get a chance to prove their greatness in an emerging market with a population estimated at 1.3 billion where soccer isn't dominant and basketball is the No. 1 spectator sport?

This team doesn't just represent the U.S., it's the tip of the spear known as NBA China. If there's no prospect of China joining NBA USA soon, there's still a fortune to be made in marketing and TV rights.

NBA China just sold 11% of its stock to ESPN and four Far East concerns, including the Bank of China, for $253 million. In other words, the NBA placed a value of almost $2.5 billion on its start-up, and five big-ticket investors bought in.

"A couple of the numbers are really staggering," says NBA China Chief Executive Tim Chen, who became a name-your-own-price executive with his deft handling of the thorny issue of software piracy at Microsoft. "China has, like, 400 million people who like basketball.

"China always breaks the record. You look at how many Internet users. China just surpassed the U.S. in Internet users.

"If you can draw a huge number to watch two Chinese players [in the NBA], imagine what you could draw if you had five Chinese playing?"

It's funny he should mention that. Today, five Chinese, including Houston's Yao Ming, New Jersey's Yi Jianlian and Lakers draftee (second round, 2007) Sun Yue will play the U.S. in what might be the most-watched basketball game of all time if China had a ratings service like Nielsen.

A Yao-Yi, Houston-Milwaukee matchup last November was carried throughout China. There are no data, but the whisper number among TV people is 200 million viewers. That would be more than twice as many as the 97.5 million who saw January's most-watched Super Bowl, between the Giants and Patriots.

This is the first time Nike has sponsored the Olympic basketball team. In 1984, when the coach was Bob Knight, who wore his patriotism on his sleeve, the team wore uniforms designed by a French company, Descente.

Nike, which prefers to speak in commercials, is reticent about its involvement, but there's no missing the Swoosh.

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