BEIJING To understand why the U.S. men's basketball team is going to blast through the Olympic competition in China, it is instructive to listen to Chris Paul.
Paul, the former Wake Forest prodigy, will be the best point guard in the 12-team Olympic tournament. He will be feeding the ball to the two best overall players in the tournament – Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
But he sounds almost awed by the Olympic experience. And humbled. That attitude, echoed by most of the U.S. team, is what will make it so dangerous.
“This game we play against China – it's bigger than life itself,” Paul said, referring to today's 10:15 a.m. contest that opens the U.S. “Redeem Team” quest for redemption. “It's something I will tell my grandkids about. And we need to win it. We need confidence. Even though we are who we are, we still need that added push.”
That doesn't sound like someone from a team about to mail it in, does it?
Despite Yao Ming and despite China's home-court advantage, the U.S. will win today's game handily. And the U.S. men will win every other game they play in this tournament, too. After going 0-for-3 in the last three big international tournaments (the Americans lost in the 2002 and 2006 world championships, along with the 2004 Olympics), the U.S. has finally figured it out.
The Americans have almost all of their best players here. In Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, they have a coach who is an expert motivator and who can make the other team sound like the New York Yankees whenever necessary. The Redeem Teamers have also adjusted well enough to the international style of game that it no longer seems so foreign.
So if you like blowouts, have fun. If you're looking for exquisite drama, you might as well look somewhere else. This team won't lose.
The key is that Coach K and Jerry Colangelo, the managing director of the men's team, have everyone buying into the concept now. In America, it's become cool to play for your country again. In Athens in 2004, about a dozen players begged off, mostly for lame reasons. And the American players who did show up and play for Larry Brown (now the Charlotte Bobcats' head coach) often did so reluctantly and spent a whole lot of time complaining about the referees.
It was disgusting, really.
Said Colangelo: “It was only a few years ago we had to drag them here. That was a little embarrassing in itself.”
This is the most talented squad the U.S. has fielded since the 1992 original “Dream Team.” And while the world has gotten much better at America's game in those 16 years, it won't match this squad. America once won 63 straight games in Olympic men's basketball competition, and it's going to look like that again in Beijing.
Krzyzewski has his team understanding that it can be beaten. And it is theoretically possible, of course. One hot shooting day by a team like Spain or Argentina, coupled with one off day by the Americans, and the gold could be gone.
But I don't think so. These players sound a lot different than they did in 2004, even though some of them are the same guys. “We know it's going to be very tough,” Dwyane Wade said.
“We've worked very hard for this,” Bryant said. “We're not taking it for granted.”
Said James: “We have one task, one goal – to win the gold medal.”
Could the U.S. win here and then disintegrate again by 2012? Certainly, that's a possibility, although Colangelo is trying to plan for it by getting a lot of first- and second-year NBA players in the national program.
But that's getting a little ahead of ourselves. If you're nicknamed the “Redeem Team” and then you don't redeem your country by winning the gold, that would seem silly.
This U.S. team isn't about to look silly. It's about to look dazzling – so dazzling that like a very bright light, you're probably going to want to turn away after awhile. Unless you're into routs.