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U.S tries a new tack: In with the old

July 30, 2008|Mark Heisler

MACAO -- After enough embarrassments to last the rest of time, the U.S. international basketball program set out to reclaim the game Dr. James Naismith invented in Springfield, Mass., and the world proceeded to steal, starting with the Americans' triumphant return in the 2006 world championships.

Well, until the semifinals, anyway.

With a new managing director, former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo; a new coach, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski; and a serious new regime, the U.S. embarked on its bright new era two years ago, finishing . . .


The result of all that new structure was a shocking loss to Greece in the semifinals in Saitama, Japan, so maybe something was still missing.

How about a grown-up or two?

In the absence of anyone older, the mantle of leadership fell on Krzyzewski's captains, 22-year-old LeBron James, 22-year-old Carmelo Anthony and 24-year-old Dwyane Wade.

Krzyzewski doesn't plan to name captains this time but he doesn't have to. With or without titles, the leaders are 35-year-old Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant, who'll turn 30 Aug. 23, the day before the Olympic basketball final.

"The team two years ago was truly not the team that would have represented us in the world championships," Colangelo said, "only because some guys were not available.

"To start with, Kobe [who had arthroscopic knee surgery]. To start with, Jason Kidd [who was excused for family reasons].

"The team performed well but if you were to be critical, you'd say: Young in the backcourt, small in the backcourt, lack of leadership overall because our group was basically a young group.

"Here you're talking about Kobe and Jason, two elderly statesmen, if you will, leaders, competitors. They truly are the leaders of this team. The younger players -- I'm talking about Carmelo, LeBron, Wade, all of them -- they defer to Kobe and to Jason as leaders."

Bryant and Kidd joined the team for last summer's qualifying Tournament of the Americas. The turning point was the first possession of the first game when Bryant batted the ball away from 20-year-old Venezuela point guard Greivis Vasquez, dived on the floor after it and, after Vasquez got it, jumped back up and stole his pass.

An awed Vasquez marveled about watching Bryant on TV all his life and "all of a sudden he was guarding me like it was the last game of his life."

It wasn't actually a coincidence. As a Maryland freshman, Vasquez had just missed a triple-double in his first game in Cameron Indoor Stadium, scoring 13 points with 12 assists and nine rebounds as the Terrapins upset Duke.

Not that Krzyzewski and his staff took it hard but they still talk about Vasquez's triple-double as if he actually got it. When they finished telling Bryant about him, Vasquez was the second coming of Manu Ginobili.

"It was more of a personal challenge," Bryant said. "Duke had had a problem with him. He had a triple-double against them so the coaches were talking him up, saying he did a number on them so could I please pay him back for what he did to them?"

"They beat us on our home court and he had a triple-double, as a freshman," said Duke assistant Chris Collins. "We just told Kobe he's a young player, very flamboyant, very Ginobili-style. We said, 'Hey, if you let him score and do some things early, he's probably going to let you know about it.'

"Kobe came out in the first two minutes and kinda put that to rest."

The rest of the Tournament of the Americas went like that, with the U.S. going unbeaten, winning by an average of 37.5 points.

"I think a spot was open for both of those guys to come in and lead in their own way," Anthony said. "Kobe came in and told everybody, what the team needed him to do, what Coach K needed him to do, he was going to do that. Everybody says that but everybody doesn't always do that. . . .

"They're two totally different personalities. Kobe's more laid back. He's starting to open up a little bit more with the guys around him, which is a good thing, which we're all looking for.

"Jason's just more like a leader all the time, a point guard on the floor and off."

Greece just earned a berth in the Americans' pool in Beijing. If a loss to Maryland could haunt the coaching staff, wait until Bryant hears about the horrors of 2006.


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