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Dreaming bigger than ever

Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- One team, more dreams than you can count with an abacus.

Even for games that are purely for sport, aside from the political message that is the same from Atlanta to the Forbidden City -- look at our vibrant society! -- and the overriding commercial presence, few Olympians ever functioned on as many levels as the NBA stars representing U.S. basketball.

Like the legendary Dream Team at Barcelona in 1992 -- well, almost -- this one has a fallen banner to raise from the dust . . . not to mention an unparalleled marketing opportunity, making this the right team at the right time in the right market.

The Dream Team brought the NBA to a world stage, prompting such a growth spurt that international teams would be sending its successors home in disgrace within 10 years.

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This team, the product of three years of development, started with yet another bummer, losing to Greece in the semifinals of the 2006 World Championships, although as they all say, they learned a lot, it helped them get better, etc.

If Coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff died inside, no one showed it, or as assistant coach Mike D’Antoni says, “We hid it pretty well, huh?”

No team has come within 10 points in the two summers since, an actual display of what may never be recovered -- dominance -- and that will get a truer test in the next two weeks.

Here’s how magical this ride has become: This team even thrills itself.

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The first time you hear Kobe Bryant and LeBron James say a gold medal is bigger than an NBA title -- which both neglected to mention all these years -- you may want to gag yourself with a spoon.

Bryant and James are, of course, Nike’s premier salesmen, and this is definitely a Nike-NBA co-production.

Nevertheless, almost as impressive as what Krzyzewski and managing director Jerry Colangelo have put together on the floor is the spirit they’ve instilled off it.

In a moving moment caught on video, Magic Johnson, the leading spirit of the Dream Team, was brought in to talk to this one when it was first assembled in 2006.

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“You’re going to look back, just like I do now . . . and man, memories are all you’ve got left, and friendship,” says Johnson, pointing slowly around the room.

“This is what you’ve got, brothers. Always remember it. Your kids, your grandkids, you’re going to be able to tell the story for the rest of your life: ‘Man, I had the USA!’ ”

Showing how the heartwarming blends with the commercial, the footage was shot by an NBA Entertainment crew with behind-the-scenes access for the five-part Nike documentary/commercial -- documercial? -- “Road to Redemption.”

Well, the U.S. is a capitalist society. Now to see where this road actually leads and what this team actually redeems.

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1.3 billion more

reasons to be excited

How many teams get a chance to prove their greatness in an emerging market with a population estimated at 1.3 billion where soccer isn’t dominant and basketball is the No. 1 spectator sport?

This team doesn’t just represent the U.S., it’s the tip of the spear known as NBA China. If there’s no prospect of China joining NBA USA soon, there’s still a fortune to be made in marketing and TV rights.

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NBA China just sold 11% of its stock to ESPN and four Far East concerns, including the Bank of China, for $253 million. In other words, the NBA placed a value of almost $2.5 billion on its start-up, and five big-ticket investors bought in.

“A couple of the numbers are really staggering,” says NBA China Chief Executive Tim Chen, who became a name-your-own-price executive with his deft handling of the thorny issue of software piracy at Microsoft. “China has, like, 400 million people who like basketball.

“China always breaks the record. You look at how many Internet users. China just surpassed the U.S. in Internet users.

“If you can draw a huge number to watch two Chinese players [in the NBA], imagine what you could draw if you had five Chinese playing?”

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It’s funny he should mention that. Today, five Chinese, including Houston’s Yao Ming, New Jersey’s Yi Jianlian and Lakers draftee (second round, 2007) Sun Yue will play the U.S. in what might be the most-watched basketball game of all time if China had a ratings service like Nielsen.

A Yao-Yi, Houston-Milwaukee matchup last November was carried throughout China. There are no data, but the whisper number among TV people is 200 million viewers. That would be more than twice as many as the 97.5 million who saw January’s most-watched Super Bowl, between the Giants and Patriots.

This is the first time Nike has sponsored the Olympic basketball team. In 1984, when the coach was Bob Knight, who wore his patriotism on his sleeve, the team wore uniforms designed by a French company, Descente.

Nike, which prefers to speak in commercials, is reticent about its involvement, but there’s no missing the Swoosh.

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David Maraniss, author of the recently published “Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World,” says, “The basketball team might as well be called the Nike Team.” ESPN Truehoop’s Henry Abbott notes that the lone non-Nike player, Dwight Howard, was rarely glimpsed in the first two installments of the documentary.

They like us?

At Athens in 2004, U.S. players and coaches bristled as Sarunas Jasikevicius dismissed them after leading Lithuania in its upset. (“So what? We came here not to beat the States or any other team, we just came here to fight for the medal.”)

In the bad news for U.S. basketball, Jasikevicius was speaking for the world.

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Suggesting that this team could really change things, four years later their old rival thinks they’re entirely different.

“They used to be extremely arrogant and it was kind of a turnoff for the world,” Jasikevicius said before the recent exhibition in Macao.

“The first thing I noticed yesterday about watching them play against Turkey, they were actually pretty friendly and were sort of respectful to the referees. It actually depends on the people, themselves, and the roster is completely different from what it was four years ago or even two years ago.”

Two years ago before Bryant and Jason Kidd joined up, the de facto leader was James, then 22 and, behind the scenes, considered something of a pain.

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At 24, everyone agrees it’s a whole new LeBron. Normally stone-faced, he actually laughed through Friday’s media session, joking about his inability to learn Mandarin. (“I’m going to worry about learning English all the way. I got ni hau [hello] and xie xie [thank you]. That was as far as I got, though.”)

James was in Athens in 2004 as a replacement -- nine of the 12 players on the team that qualified the summer before didn’t return -- with two weeks of practice.

“That was way before I knew what it meant to be an Olympian and wear the red, white and blue,” he said. “I didn’t know that in 2004. I was kind of starting to get the feeling in 2006. I think the NBA title is still hot, but they both go hand in hand for me now.

“I mean, we grow up thinking about NBA titles. Being an Olympian was something I grew up never thinking about. That’s why at the beginning I didn’t know what it meant, but now I do.”

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Who cares if they’re not the Dream Team? They have a little dream team of their own.

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mark.heisler@latimes.com


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