RIO DE JANEIRO – Along with more household names and a catchy nickname, the other element missing from Team USA in its pursuit of a third consecutive gold medal is suspense. With Usain Bolt recovering from a tricky hamstring and Michael Phelps advancing in age, nothing feels like more of a certainty at the Rio Games than members of the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team leaning down and accepting shiny gold objects around their necks in another two weeks. Embarrassment won’t come from defeat, but rather failure to obliterate the competition.
In the 12 years since they finished a disappointing third in Athens, the Americans have successfully separated themselves from a world that had seemingly closed the gap. The run has elevated USA Basketball to such levels that it no longer needs to stockpile the best of the best, since the rest of what’s left is still expected to go unchallenged.
As they were introduced to Brazil Thursday, most of the players spoke in respectful terms of the competition, refusing to allow their obvious talent advantages to bleed into overconfidence. Kyrie Irving, however, spoke frankly when asked what could stop the Americans from reaching their goal.
“I don’t know … nothing,” Irving said, after taking time to ponder. “Honestly, that should be our attitude. If things get hard, we should be able to withstand it. And we’ll be ready for anything.”
Team USA had an obvious purpose when Coach Mike Krzyzewski and chairman Jerry Colangelo assembled their first Olympic team for Beijing in 2008. The Redeem Team, as it was called, restored America’s status as the home of the world’s greatest collection of basketball talent. Four years later, with just five players from that squad, the U.S. had what amounted to a victory lap in London, where two games were decided by single digits. LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and James Harden aren’t around for this go-round but international newcomers like Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green, DeAndre Jordan, Kyle Lowry and Harrison Barnes will now get their turn to make history.
“We didn’t come up with a theme, but it was pretty evident in ’08, we had to come back. We were climbing the hill, that’s the way I would describe it,” Colangelo said. “In ’12, we were defending the hill and it was different. It was a different feeling. In ’16, my attitude is, I want to keep it going, just keep the ball rolling in the right direction.”
Krzyzewski has stated that the 2016 squad has the potential to be one of best defensive units, but Carmelo Anthony acknowledged that the team is still forming its identity. The U.S. has generated more attention during this exhibition period for Snapchat stories, Facebook posts and other social media platforms. Anthony has also used this stage to raise awareness of the distrust between the police and the African-American community.
Still, no label or corporate marketing scheme can neatly capture what this team is about. The Dream Team moniker was retired in the last century, and no attempt to bring it back would be tolerated when so many of the game’s top players chose to be elsewhere this time. Anthony was stumped trying to come up with a nickname. But as the only link between the disastrous 2004 team and the glory in China – “I know what it felt like to be at the bottom. I know what it feels like to be at the top,” Anthony said Thursday – Anthony wasn’t going to accept the title, Redeem Team III.
“No, no, no. We already redeemed ourselves in ’08,” Anthony said with a laugh. “You can only redeem yourself one time.”
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Anthony and Kevin Durant are the only members of the team with past Olympic experience, which speaks to the incredible depth of the program. No matter who declines an invitation, there is more waiting in the pipeline. And Krzyzewski has established a culture that embraces individual ego while encouraging selfless teamwork.
“It’s going to be challenging either way. It would’ve been challenging if they were here as well,” Durant, the former MVP, said of the absence of more recognizable stars. “We’ve got some great players here. They haven’t been here before or they might not be MVPs or 10-time All-Stars, but we’ve got some talented players on this team, no matter what anybody says. I have nothing but confidence in everybody here.”
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Irving didn’t hide his desire for the team to dominate, beginning with Saturday’s opener against China. “I feel like that should be our expectation every single game,” Irving said. “Not just for everyone else, but for us. We should expect that from one another.”
Team USA’s reign won’t always be so resounding. Many of the league’s more promising young players are foreigners – none of the past four No. 1 overall picks will ever suit up for the U.S. in international competitions (Karl-Anthony Towns was born in New Jersey but represents the Dominican Republic). So maintaining, especially with Krzyzewski set to leave the program at the conclusion of these games – for real, this time – and slaying becomes the objective for a team that understands winning gold isn’t enough.
“We know that we’re favored to win, but we’re not guaranteed,” Durant said. “We know that anything can happen in this league, or basketball. We’ve seen crazy things happen in basketball. Nothing is ever for sure. We want to get this gold. We’re not gold medalists right now. We don’t have the gold around our necks. Once it’s for sure, then we’ll be excited. But right now, we’ve got a job to do. And we’ve got to prepare the right way, every day.”
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