BEIJING – Four years later, Nike is running periodic infomercials on the NBA's house network called the "The Road to Redemption," a superficial look into the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team that's so full of propaganda that even the Chinese government blushes upon watching it. There's Kobe Bryant lifting his kids into the air and Team USA circling the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor and Mike Krzyzewski confessing to Jerry Colangelo in a private moment that, "I'm really excited."
The scenes seemed so stiff and staged – a source of summer laughter for NBA executives and agents watching throughout the league – but everyone understands the power of the shoe company and accepts it as a necessary return on the hundreds of millions of dollars that is sunk into USA Basketball, its coach and rosters.
Because of the damage done at the 2004 Athens Games, the packagers of American basketball – from USA Basketball to the NBA to Nike – have had to go to such lengths to re-brand and restore its national team product. For the specter of America's downward spiral in international basketball four years ago still hangs heavy over these Beijing games, which start for the U.S. against China on Sunday.
So much of the trouble goes back to former coach Larry Brown's behavior in public and private in Athens, a situation exasperated by the leadership vacuum created under his wayward watch. He picked fights with his players and tried to send players home before the Olympics, and when everyone wanted to believe that all the problems belonged to an admittedly sizable representation of knuckleheads on his roster, just remember that the most model pro of all, Tim Duncan, left the games with disdain for Brown.
From the moment Team USA was blown out of its opening game against Puerto Rico, Brown worked hard to distance himself from the evolving disaster, crafting concession speeches and exit strategies for his legacy. That wasn't the best team that the U.S. could've sent, but with Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Shaquille O'Neal bailing within months of the 2004 games, the players did consist of the willing – if not the elite – of American basketball.
At the time, Brown was asked about shortening his bench and using fewer players, and said, "Other teams accept it a lot better than our team would."
And the process of picking his roster? "We've got to be really careful when selecting our team. To find role players in our environment is the way to go, but not the way we've been making teams."
His players' commitment? "We're trying to entertain sometimes rather than play."
Poor shot selection? "I think that was the first comment I made (to the team) without trying to be offensive."
All the way through, Brown was offensive to everyone. No one was spared his destructive scape-goating and revisionist history about his own role in selecting the team. It turned into some unseemly scene for the Americans, who were housed on a boat in Athens that became notorious for its partying. Once Brown tossed that white flag into the air, sold out Team USA and its players, the message had been unmistakable to them: It's every man for himself. By the time NBA commissioner David Stern arrived in Greece and used an impromptu halftime news conference to rip back at Brown, it was far too late.
If nothing else, Krzyzewski gives the Americans an accountable leader, a steady, sure voice, even if his ability to navigate this team under duress in the most rugged international bracket ever seen is still suspect. His inability to make adjustments and defend Greece's pick-and-roll two years ago in that world championship loss still leaves some suspicious about his experience to match ‘X's and ‘O's with in an extremely different international game.
Nevertheless, Krzyzewski has benefited from two full years of preparation time and training camps. Most of all, Colangelo provided him an upgraded roster. Team USA couldn't have competed here without it. Spain has its best team ever, and as long Manu Ginobili's ankle can return to its pre-San Antonio Spurs playoff form, the defending Olympic champion, Argentina, is still a monumental threat. The Greeks and Russians have puncher's chances, too.
Remember this: To compete with the U.S., you had better rebound and control tempo. Even in an exhibition loss to the Americans with a limited cast of players, the defending European champion Russians showed that they have toughness and discipline to do so. With American exile coach, David Blatt, an old Pete Carril Princeton point guard, Russia held Team USA to 89 points.
Yes, the U.S. deserves to be the favorite for the fact that Bryant is playing, and James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony are four years older. What's more, the guard play is so much better with Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Jason Kidd. As the Americans prepared to arrive at the Olympics four years later, Wade remembered back to '04 and confessed, "Know what it felt like? How it feels when you wake up late to go somewhere, and you have to run out the front door and you know you've forgotten something. You're rushed, and you're racing to get there. … That's how it was for us. I didn't see it so much then, but I really do now."
The NBA wouldn't have dared thrust a camera crew on that American team in Athens, even with something as sanitized as the infomercial that Team USA's sugar daddy, Nike, is spoon-feeding on state-run television now. So humiliating was that distant third-place finish, so miserable the time there, Wade swears he has no idea what's become of his bronze medal.
"The last thing I remember was packing it in a bag," he said.
As far as he knows, it's never been seen again. "That's not the one I want," Wade added.
So, here come the Americans on this jagged road to redemption but finally there's no more editing out the embarrassing and unseemly and true moments. From here on, the world gets to see it all.