USA basketball team trying not to appear overconfident
Players praise China, which they just beat by 50 points
Predicting that the United States men’s basketball team will win gold in Rio de Janeiro is like saying rapper Kendrick Lamar will spit fire or President Barack Obama will stay black. There may be no bigger Olympic favorite than this 12-man band of brothers. So how are they mentally preparing for their opening game against China, which the U.S. beat down by 50 points just last week?
With apparent hypnosis by head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who clearly has drilled into his team the importance of not taking anything for granted.
Krzyzewski began the team news conference Thursday by saying how much respect his team has for its opponents. “We know there are great basketball players all over the world,” he said. “Over 20 percent of the NBA is international now. There’s a deep respect for the international game, and we hope we can show that respect in the manner in which we play in Rio de Janeiro.”
Yes, coach, there are great players all over the world. But arguably none of them would even be selected for this U.S. powerhouse whose weakest link is … Harrison Barnes? DeAndre Jordan at the free throw line? An unauthorized halftime photo shoot by Draymond Green?
Still, the players are saying all the right things.
“We’re not coming in as if we feel like we’ve already won, because that’s not the case,” said DeMarcus Cousins. “As of right now, every team is equal. Every team has a fair chance of winning the gold medal.”
Except China, which lost two games to this U.S. team during an exhibition tour by a combined 99 points. Or Nigeria, which saw Festus Ezeli and Al-Farouq Aminu withdraw. Or host Brazil, which is missing Anderson Varejao and relying on the aging duo of Nene and Leandro Barbosa.
There are some competitive squads in Rio. France starts NBA stalwarts Tony Parker, Rudy Gobert, Boris Diaw and Nicolas Batum, plus Euroleague MVP Nando de Colo. For Spain, Marc Gasol is out, but the team still has his brother Pau, Nikola Mirotic and a bunch of bearded guards you’ve seen getting torched in the NBA.
But first, China, on Saturday, at 6 p.m. EST.
“They’ll definitely be a tough opponent, we can’t take those guys lightly,” said Jordan, ignoring those two previous games and the 99-point spread. He cited “their ability to spread the floor; they have a lot of big guys who can shoot the ball; and their guards are super aggressive attacking.”
USA Basketball learned this humble approach the hard way.
After American college stars could no longer compete with grown men from Europe, the United States sent its first team of NBA players to Barcelona, Spain, in 1992 — the legendary “Dream Team” of Michael Jordan, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Larry Bird & Co. The United States won gold again in 1996, with Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon on the team, and in 2000, when Vince Carter delivered the greatest dunk of all time.
Then came the disastrous 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, featuring an entitled and overconfident team that included Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury, plus young bucks Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. Puerto Rico roasted the United States by 19 points in the opener, Lithuania beat them by four and they lost to Argentina by eight in the semifinals. The U.S. team’s bronze medal might as well have been tin.
That’s when USA Basketball overhauled the culture of the program, made Krzyzewski the head coach and revived the monster that we will see in Rio.
“I’ve been a part of it since 2004,” said Anthony, now on his fourth Olympic team after gold medals in 2008 and 2012. “I know what it felt like when the rest of the world was supposedly catching up with the USA as far as from a basketball standpoint.
“So I know what it felt like to be at the bottom, and I know what it feels like to be at the top of the game.”