Tuesday, June 24, 2008

When Jerry Colangelo was hired to return the U.S. men’s basketball program to prominence three years ago, he stressed commitment and said it would be rewarded.

Colangelo and Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski followed through on that promise Monday; eight of the 12 players named to the Olympic team will be spending their third consecutive summer with the program.

That is far different from four years ago, when the U.S. team was a mishmash of late additions and youth that went 5-3.

This year’s roster has played together and practiced together during competitions in Japan and Las Vegas. Each player has played at least one international tournament in the last two years.

“When I was asked to take on this responsibility, I felt there were a number of things that needed to change: culture, infrastructure and commitment from players and coaches,” said Colangelo, the program’s managing director. “All of that has transpired, and it culminated with the selection of these 12 players.”

The team features seven first-time Olympians: Kobe Bryant, Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Tayshaun Prince, Michael Redd and Deron Williams. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Carlos Boozer played in 2004. Jason Kidd, who played in Sydney in 2000, is the only player on the roster with a gold medal.

The team begins minicamp this weekend in Las Vegas, and Krzyzewski said last summer’s starting lineup of Anthony, Bryant, Howard, James and Kidd will remain intact. That team went 10-0 to win the FIBA Americas Championship.

The United States begins Olympic play Aug. 10 against host China, hoping to end its recent struggles in international competition.

Team USA went 6-3 - losing three of its last four games - in the 2002 world championships, followed by the Athens debacle, which included a 19-point pool play loss to Puerto Rico and an eight-point semifinal defeat to Argentina.

The team was panned for having few outside shooters (it shot 31.4 percent from 3-point range), players who weren’t comfortable coming off the bench (Shawn Marion) and some attitude issues (Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury).

Colangelo, who watched from Arizona, recalled earlier this year he was “embarrassed” not only by the performance but by the antics of the players.

“It was a sad moment to see the state of basketball as far as USA Basketball was concerned,” he said. “I didn’t know I would be asked to change it. When they did, I love challenges, and this is a big one.”

USA Basketball took its first step to redemption April 27, 2005, by hiring Colangelo, who was the face of the Phoenix Suns for nearly 40 years. Four months later, he hired Krzyzewski.

Unlike past bosses, Colangelo was given total control over the roster. He and Krzyzewski quickly established a three-year commitment for players who wanted to be on the 2008 team. Some players, such as Kevin Garnett, never showed interest. Most players, including Bryant - who had never played for his country - bought in.

The United States won the bronze medal in the 2006 world championships, with injuries preventing Bryant and Kidd from playing. In last year’s Olympic qualifier, Bryant was tabbed by Krzyzewski as the United States’ defensive stopper. The team went undefeated, and Bryant was the United States’ third leading scorer.

Bryant is back on the team and has assured officials his damaged pinky finger won’t be a problem.

“When he sustained the injury, we had a conversation immediately, and he said, ‘Don’t worry about me. I’m playing. I’ll take care of it when the Olympics are over if I need to,’” Colangelo said.

With Bryant shutting down the opponent, the United States also improved in other areas. Last summer, it shot 47 percent from 3-point territory (highlighted by the addition of the sharpshooter Redd) and averaged fewer than 11 turnovers a game (Kidd and Williams are upgrades over Iverson and Marbury). Most importantly, Colangelo and Krzyzewski stress, players are accepting coming off the bench.

“We think we’ve addressed those, and it was a constant conversation piece,” Colangelo said. “We think we have overall shooting and certainly we have big-time scores. A guy like Michael Redd can come off the bench, and he’s there specifically for his shooting ability. And Prince is a classic example of a player that falls into the category of role players. The diversity of players and combinations Coach K can play will cause matchup problems.”

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