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MARK HEISLER / ON MEN'S BASKETBALL

Attitude shift for the U.S.

August 24, 2008|Mark Heisler

BEIJING — We're bad (again).

We aren't back atop basketball quite yet, since there is still today's final game against Spain, even if it's widely presumed to be a formality after the U.S. took the Spaniards apart last week, 119-82.

Of course, I'm not sure how many of us there were from 2002 to 2006, when our dazed and confused teams kept getting carried home from international competitions.

The U.S. always had the best players but also the biggest attitude and the least preparation time. With the world improving and international rules diminishing the role of athleticism while enhancing that of shooting, an incredible new reality emerged:

The U.S. no longer had the best teams. U.S. players had to get over their attitude, which required not only a hard look at themselves but a lot of . . . how to put it . . . lip service.

Before the Argentina game, a member of the U.S. staff gave the standard they're-a-great-team speech, which the media duly recorded, including me.

Afterward, I pulled him aside. "They can't beat you," I said.

"I know," he said.

Despite media predictions of more doom, you could see this monster arising last summer, flattening everything in its path at the Tournament of the Americas.

This summer before the team left for Asia, Jay Triano, the Toronto Raptors assistant whose U.S. select team was about to scrimmage the varsity, walked into practice with two of his players, Jason Kapono and David Lee.

"It was like a seven-point defensive drill," says Triano, "where you're in a denial, you go back to help, you front the post, then you deny on the other side, then you're back to help, then a guy comes down the lane and you step in and take a charge and close out. The intensity of it was unbelievable.

"And our guys saw it, they just looked at it and said, 'We're going to get . . . killed.' "

They did, and so has everyone since.

With one more victory, this team will go down among the greats, and it may be no easier to follow than the Dream Team.

It takes something special to bond a team of All-Stars, who are, by definition, scorers used to having the ball in their hands.

It can be a Magic Johnson, whose personality transcended everyone's with the Dream Team in 1992.

It can be a Bob Knight, who drove his college players as only he could in 1984.

One night with Knight could be a lifetime. When they beat West Germany, 78-67, Knight railed, "They won't do anything I say!" on the sidelines and kicked over the tray of water cups. When he started in on Michael Jordan afterward, Jordan sprang to his feet as teammates stepped between them.

Mike Krzyzewski, now the U.S. coach, broke down film for Knight that summer. Of all the U.S. teams, this one most resembles Knight's team -- with fewer adventures.

Not that it was always a triumphal parade.

It started with the stunning loss to Greece in the 2006 world championships, when the young U.S. players were mesmerized by an exotic trick called the pick-and-roll.

If this gave Krzyzewski a basis in fact for the humility he wanted to imbue, it also meant having to qualify in 2007 -- in Venezuela -- raising the possibility of more players defecting, like the nine who dropped out before Athens in 2004.

Meanwhile, with players like Miami's Dwyane Wade getting hurt or slumping like the Clippers' Elton Brand, NBA teams grumbled about playing all summer.

Even LeBron James, Nike's lead spokesman who was so psyched for Beijing he was trying to learn Mandarin, said he wasn't sure he'd be back.

"Well, we were not happy campers," U.S. boss Jerry Colangelo says. "First of all, just to lose the game. Second of all, to put ourselves in the position where we had to go to a qualifying tournament.

"And then on top of that, to go to Venezuela, which is not necessarily the best place for Americans, let alone our basketball people. That could have led to some issues."

Yeah, like finding a new team. Fortunately for the U.S., Venezuela defaulted, the International Basketball Federation reopened bidding . . . and the new site turned out to be Las Vegas, the U.S. team's home away from home.

"The NBA stepped up because the NBA is who has been financing USA Basketball," Colangelo says. ". . . I think the number was $3.5 million to get the tournament."

Still, with all that commitment and structure, there was a piece missing.

Arriving in 2007 after knee surgery canceled his summer of 2006, Kobe Bryant committed himself to defense -- OK, with occasional forays on offense -- awing teammates with his zeal.

In the first possession of the first game, Bryant tipped the ball away from Venezuela's Greivis Vasquez, dived for it, watched Vasquez get it back, jumped up and stole his pass.

Krzyzewski has been running the video ever since.

Leaving nothing to chance, Krzyzewski brought in one expert and/or inspirational speaker after another: Magic Johnson; U.S. soldiers from Iraq; a Greek referee to officiate scrimmages; and Triano, a former star guard for Canada, to tell them how little the world had come to think of them.

"There used to be arrogance in almost everything," Triano says, "the fact you could bring one coach and 12 guys and think you could just go out and beat the rest of the world. . . .

"They've talked every day about representing their country -- there are 12 guys who win an NCAA championship every year, 12 guys who win an NBA championship every year.

"A gold medal? That happens once every four years.

"These guys get it now. They've bought in to an extent I would have never believed."

As a journey of 1,000 miles starts with one step, it ends with one step. With Spain standing in the giant's footstep, that's all that's left.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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