LAS VEGAS -- Frustrating. Disappointing. Comical.
Which of those words best describes the U.S. men's basketball team in the 2004 Olympics?
For Dwyane Wade, it's all of the above.
"It was very comical," said Wade, a member of that team and the 2008 squad. "You just had to shake your head. Everybody on that team was a good individual player, but when you tried to put it together, it didn't work. It was like a bad mix of food."
Bad enough to finish with a 5-3 record, good enough only for a bronze medal. Appalling considering that, in the 14 previous Olympics in which the U.S. had competed, dating to the start of basketball competition in 1936, the Americans had lost a total of two games.
"There were so many tough moments for that 2004 team that I can't even single out one," Wade said at Valley High, where the Olympic team is holding a final week of practice before heading to China.
"I think the main thing was, everybody wasn't connected, wasn't together," the Miami Heat guard said. "From the first team to the second team, there was no commitment. We weren't rooting for each other. We were fighting against each other because everybody wanted to play. I was fighting for five minutes a game. I loved all the guys on the team, but it just wasn't the right combination for an Olympic team.
"Now I look at the team we have now, look at the mix. Look at everything we are doing. We are getting along so well. I think it's because we understand we need each other to make this work. It's not going to be five guys. It's going to be 12 guys who are going to get this done."
There were other factors four years ago. There was a process based on the belief that the U.S. was so superior to the rest of the world that merely rolling the ball onto the court and lining up five All-Stars was sufficient. And there was a pervasive fear of terrorism that caused some players to stay home.
"Since the Dream Team [in 1992], they picked an All-Star team which practiced for a couple of weeks and was good enough to win," said Jerry Colangelo, managing director of this year's squad. "As the gap with the rest of the world closed, you couldn't do that anymore."
When players dropped out, replacements arrived, but it was late in the process.
"Wade, LeBron James, Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony were added," Colangelo said. "But they were young, way before their time. And none of them really played that much. So almost from day one, it wasn't a healthy situation.
"And when we got blown out by Puerto Rico in the first game by 19 points, that was more than a wake-up call. That was a death blow."
Colangelo was brought in to run the show and he made Duke's Mike Krzyzewski head coach. Players were told they had to make a three-year commitment if they wanted to be on the 2008 squad.
"If the 2004 team had been together for three years," Krzyzewski said, "[Coach] Larry Brown and his staff and those kids would have had a better chance. That's just not the way we did it in the United States. That's why I don't think you can ever blame those guys or that coaching staff.
"Now with this type of commitment, you have a chance to succeed. It doesn't mean you are going to succeed, but at least you have a chance."
Although he has gone on to superstardom since 2004, Wade again won't be a starter. Those roles will be filled by Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd in the backcourt and James, Anthony and Dwight Howard up front.
Will that be a problem?
"Not at all," Wade insisted. "I'm happy with my role on the team. It's not about me. I'm a starter with the Miami Heat. I'm a franchise player there. This is the USA Olympic team. This is bigger. I'm enjoying my role on this team. I'm not trying to play 40 minutes.
"I'll be happy with whatever the game calls for. One game, you might play 15, 20 minutes, the next, you might play five minutes. It's just about us winning.
"We've got just over 30 days to dedicate ourselves to this team and then, after that, you go back to your respective teams and play 40 minutes a game. But it's not about that right now."
Bryant says it's wrong to even focus on a starting unit.
"It doesn't really matter," he said. "We are playing in units. We don't really look at it as first unit, second unit. We just play in waves. I don't think anybody really cares about who is starting."
No argument from Wade.
"I see the guys on this team giving themselves for everybody else," he said. "It's a totally different feeling from four years ago."
Not the least bit comical.
James suffered a mild sprain to his right ankle in Tuesday's scrimmage. He will be reevaluated this morning.