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U.S. Basketball Team Opens Training Camp
This will not be a Dream Team. A more fitting moniker might be the "I Have a Dream" team. America's most eager good players will lace up their sneakers and don "USA" jerseys as training camp opens Monday for the Olympic men's basketball team, but most of the best players from the birthplace of basketball won't be in attendance.
"The players we have here want to be here. That's important," said Jim Tooley, the executive director of USA Basketball. "I think that'll go a long way."
Rejection has been the recurring theme for Tooley over the past several months as one superstar after another withdrew or turned down an invitation to represent the United States in Athens.
There is nobody, aside from coach Larry Brown, representing the NBA champion Detroit Pistons.
Looking for a Laker, past or present? Lamar Odom is the only one, filling a void left by the withdrawal of Kobe Bryant and the rejected invite by ex-Laker Shaquille O'Neal, whose summertime focus will be relocating to South Beach rather than getting ready for Greece.
Tracy McGrady isn't around, either, joining Elton Brand, Kenyon Martin, Kevin Garnett, Richard Hamilton, Ray Allen, Ben Wallace, Jason Kidd, Mike Bibby, Karl Malone, Reggie Miller and Jermaine O'Neal in a group of players who have decided -- because of injuries, security fears or indifference -- that staying stateside and watching from the cozy confines of a couch would be preferable to competing for a gold medal.
In their place is a roster that includes LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, Shawn Marion and Emeka Okafor.
With an average age of 23.6, it will be the youngest team to represent the United States since the Dream Team era began in 1992.
Few of the players have extensive experience with international rules, and their unfamiliarity with each other will be one of the key obstacles for Brown to try to overcome. But none of them are taking part grudgingly, as was the case two years ago at the World Championships and to a lesser degree four years ago in Sydney.
Perhaps this version of Team USA should be called the "Coalition of the Willing."
"We're done with nicknames," said Tooley, who chuckled at that proposed moniker while conceding it was somewhat fitting. "I don't want to write history before it's taken place. Let them name themselves as they go through this."
Now in his 11th year with the governing body for the U.S. national team, Tooley is excited to be sending a fresh set of faces overseas to compete against an array of international squads that proved in 2002 they had caught up with -- and surpassed -- the Americans.
The best the United States could do two years ago at the World Championships in Indianapolis was finish sixth, losing decisively to Argentina, Yugoslavia and Spain.
Tooley recalls it as the darkest time in his tenure, a nadir that turned full circle in the space of one year and reached a zenith last summer when the Americans romped through an Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico, culminating with a stunning display of dominance in the championship game against Argentina.
But one year later, there is very little left from that team.
Tim Duncan, Richard Jefferson and Allen Iverson are the only returning players, and the Americans will be fielding an undersized but versatile roster.
What pleases Tooley the most is the players' level of dedication.
Tooley recalled an episode from roughly a decade ago when Stephon Marbury played for a USA Basketball youth team that traveled to Greece and lost four times in eight games. Marbury called Tooley the following spring and asked to be excused from a tryout for another U.S. junior team, saying it would cause him to miss his prom.
The request was denied, and Marbury decided to ditch his tuxedo and attend the tryout instead.
Still eager to represent his country, Marbury didn't hesitate to accept after several defections prompted the federation to extend him an invite.
"We expected some changes, but not the number of changes. It was disappointing that a number of guys became unavailable for different reasons," Tooley said. "We never felt really low, we just said 'Let's tighten our belts and get to work and find 12 guys that want to do it.' It would be terrific if this group is part of the core group for the 2008 Olympics."
The team will practice at the University of North Florida for five days and play an exhibition against Puerto Rico before going on a pre-Olympic tour that includes exhibition games in Germany, Serbia and Turkey. The Americans open Olympic play Aug. 15 against Puerto Rico.