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Basketball Redemption Won’t Come Easily for U.S.

Associated Press

Two easy exhibition game victories, followed quickly by a four-point escape in the next one.

It was yet another reminder that the wins no longer all come easily for the United States -- and these days, sometimes they don’t come at all.

Like Mike Tyson in his prime, U.S. teams once simply intimidated and dominated overmatched opponents. But like the former champ, the Americans eventually learned that those same foes could no longer be bullied once the aura of invincibility was gone.

Who’s afraid of the big, bad U.S. now?

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Certainly nobody is conceding a spot on the podium for a team that’s only 11-6 in the last Olympics and world championships. So as they head to Japan, no wonder the Americans talk of more than just bringing back a medal. Along the way, they’d like to recapture their old swagger, too.

The world championships begin Friday and run through Sept. 3. The first U.S. game is against Puerto Rico on Friday.

“We’ve got something to prove. We’ve got everything to prove,” Carmelo Anthony said. “Right now, we don’t think people respect us as a country or as a basketball team, so we feel we have to go over and prove something.”

American players last had a similar responsibility in 1992, the first time NBA players were sent to international competition. After college kids failed to bring home gold in either the 1988 Olympics or the ’90 worlds, the original Dream Team was dispatched to Barcelona, where it rolled through its competition -- leaving no doubt who was the boss when it came to basketball.

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Mike Krzyzewski was an assistant on that team. And while this team doesn’t have nearly the same star power, he does think he is coaching one with a similar mind-set.

“What’s exciting to me is that this group is challenged to restore American basketball to its rightful spot in the world, and you do that by playing all facets of the game to the highest level and also handling yourself in an exemplary manner off the court,” he said.

“We all know that’s what’s expected of us, and it’s my responsibility to make sure that that happens.”

To do so, it turns out, the Americans were forced to start thinking like those same teams they used to beat up on.

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Teams such as Argentina -- 2-0 against the United States in the worlds and Olympics since 2002 -- masterfully execute their systems in part because their players have been together for years and are familiar with each other’s tendencies on the court.

The Americans realized they never were going to get there by trotting out a different group of players every time and giving them little time to prepare. So in came the U.S. national team, put together in March and set to be together under the same coaching staff for the next three years.

The players training in Asia right now are many of the same ones who will do it again before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

“Many of the successful international teams have a national team and they have continuity,” USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said. “And when you have that kind of fluid situation it made all the sense in the world that that’s something that we were lacking, because we didn’t have that here.”

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Krzyzewski called the additional time spent together “an advantage that the international teams have had over us in the last decade.”

The players, some of whom were part of the recent disappointing results, agreed to give up parts of their next three summers, along with any special treatment they were accustomed to in the NBA. They had to earn their way onto the final roster through their play during training camps -- many couldn’t remember the last time they risked getting cut -- and none was guaranteed to be a star once he did that.

Even Kobe Bryant, unable to play because of a knee injury, said he had been looking forward to playing on the same team as Bruce Bowen, a bitter rival from years of Lakers-Spurs playoff battles.

“It’s all about the guys putting it up on the shelf and coming together for one common goal,” Bowen said. “You can’t do that if you have any hidden agendas.

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“I think I can read people pretty well when I’m around them. What I see on this team is that guys have mutual respect for one another and we have the common goal of wanting to bring back some prominence to the U.S.”

Things got off to a smooth start, with overpowering victories over Puerto Rico and China in exhibitions that resembled the good ol’ days. But Anthony got hurt, Dwyane Wade fouled out and the U.S. needed a couple of big plays down the stretch to beat Brazil, 90-86, in its third outing.

Games like that have become the norm, further proof of how different the international basketball landscape has become -- and why even the United States was forced to change to adapt to it.

“We invented the game, we sent our players and our coaches out to teach the world and now they’re closing the gap,” Colangelo said. “They got better and better, we didn’t take care of business and they knocked us off our perch.”

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