Redeemed team

Back on top, U.S. men not about to fall off

2008 summer olympics

August 25, 2008|By RICK MAESE | RICK MAESE,rick.maese@baltsun.com

BEIJING - When it was all over and the Americans were draped in red, white, blue and gold, Carmelo Anthony spoke of his team and his country and the state of USA Basketball. But he just as easily could have been referring to himself.

"We were at America's lowest point in '04," said Anthony, who, in case you forget, returned to Baltimore shortly after the Athens Games and infamously declared in a street video that he tossed his Olympic bronze medal into a lake.

"And to be sitting in front you guys tonight and be on top of the world," he continued, "I think we did a hell of a job putting America basketball back where it's supposed to be."

And more than likely, where it will continue to be.

The betting line hasn't yet been posted, but let's just put this out there now: The U.S. men's basketball team is the early and overwhelming favorite for gold at the 2012 London Games.

Members of the 2008 squad surely slept with their new medals around their necks last night, cradling their gold as a toddler might a teddy bear. They won't wake up today and hit practice, and the roster won't be shuffled immediately, but it's safe to say USA Basketball is back. In what was actually a relatively quick turnaround for a downtrodden program, the foundation has been reinforced and the future secured.

"We're a tough blueprint to follow," Dwyane Wade said after Team USA's exciting, 118-107 win over Spain yesterday.

But that's not really the point. What's important is this: There's an actual blueprint in place that's worth following.

In the years leading up to yesterday's gold-medal ceremony, leaders of USA Basketball stopped pretending to be NBA general managers and they found a coach who wouldn't act like an NBA head coach. They found players willing to commit and had every multimillion-dollar name on the roster thinking, drinking and sleeping the same philosophies.

"What you saw today was a team," Kobe Bryant said. "Everybody wants to talk about NBA players being selfish, being arrogant, being individuals. What you saw today was a team bonded together. Facing adversity and coming out of here with a big win."

Bryant knew exactly to whom the credit is due. Not him, even though he scored 20 points against Spain. Not Wade, who had 27. Not Anthony (Towson Catholic), LeBron James or any other superstar branded with the swoosh.

"I think this is a testament to the system that Mr. Colangelo put in place," Bryant said.

After the United States bombed at the world championships, longtime NBA executive Jerry Colangelo was given the reins and systematically put together the pieces, positioning everyone for the medal stand in Beijing. He picked the right coach - Duke's Mike Krzyzewski - and assembled a group of players who would make Team USA a priority, mostly guys who grew up in awe of the Dream Team. They made a commitment not just for 2008, but also for each summer leading up to the Games. In turn, they had time to jell.

"We can't say enough about them," Colangelo said. "These players have given of themselves for three years. They've given up their summers, they've bought into the whole team thing, they set their personal egos aside, they've done everything asked of them."

But will they do it again?

The average age of the gold-medal-winning Redeem Team is 26 - and that's factoring in that Jason Kidd has qualified for Social Security. In 2012, Anthony will be 28, James just 27 and Dwight Howard only 26. If they really and truly bought into the value of the team and believed their play is important for American basketball, they'll be back.

And watching how much they enjoyed this run - which until yesterday's nail-biting conclusion, included a series of seven blowouts - it's tough not to see most of them sign up as soon as possible. In fact, Colangelo said a half-dozen have already privately assured him they want to return. Anthony has said that he would like to be back in four years but hasn't offered any sort of guarantee.

At any rate, if the Dream Team inspired the world to play basketball, the Redeem Team has let Americans know it's OK to root again for the home team.

"I think this right here will be contagious," said Chris Paul, who contributed 13 points and five assists in the win over Spain. "It'll rub off on a lot of people."

The message isn't just that the USA is again dominant in basketball; it's that they've figured out the blueprint and know how to reach the top of the medal stand. In fact, they illustrated this perfectly yesterday when they actually arrived at the medal stand.

Standing on the court, all 12 players stood side by side and locked arms. They stepped up together as one onto the podium - to accept their gold medals and to finally and formally return the U.S. to the top of the basketball world.

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