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Redemption Song

Mere days from now, in a place known as the Hokkaido Prefectural Sports Center, the USA Basketball Men's Senior National Team will begin its long-awaited quest for redemption.

Redemption for a disappointing bronze-medal performance in the 2004 Olympics. Vindication for an utterly embarrassing sixth-place finish in the 2002 FIBA World Championships.

History will show that this is the same country that had claimed the gold medal in 12 of the previous 14 Olympic Games. The same country that - until 2002 - boasted a 58-game winning streak in tournaments in which we sent NBA players.

But after the Athens debacle, even casual basketball fans realized that a complete overhaul of the United States basketball program was definitely in order. Two years later, the first fruits of that labor will be on display in Japan.

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After the events of September 5, 2002, USA Basketball would never be the same again.

To borrow a concept from best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, the 2002 FIBA World Championships were the proverbial "tipping point" for the USA Basketball program. Until four years ago, the United States had completely dominated the game of basketball on the global stage, having won every major competition in which they sent a team comprised of NBA players (due to the lockout in 1998, CBA players represented the United States at that summer's FIBA World Championships).

The 2002 tournament started out as expected, with Team USA defeating their first five opponents by an average of nearly 32 points per game. Then came that fateful Monday in September. Ironically enough, it also happened to be Labor Day, but the United States didn't put in much work during an 87-80 loss to Argentina in second round play.

Due to its sheer magnitude, that game quickly became basketball's equivalent of an international incident. One would think, should have been enough to motivate the first group of NBA players ever to lose an international game. Of course, the U.S. team went out and lost again the next day, falling 81-78 to eventual world champion Yugoslavia.

That second straight defeat relegated the United States to the consolation bracket, with the possibility of finishing no better than fifth overall. Following a 84-74 victory over Puerto Rico, Team USA would be beaten for the third time in less than a week, this time losing 81-76 to Spain on September 7.

It is one thing not to win an international tournament, but it's another matter entirely to finish behind New Zealand (who placed 4th) when the World Championships are being played in your own backyard (the Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, to be exact). That performance alone should have been enough to call for massive changes to the USA Basketball program, but not before the United States faltered on the world stage once again.

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The last group that donned the red, white and blue in international competition was a decent collection of talent, but a poorly constructed unit. Not only did the 2004 Olympic team lack a true point guard, but there wasn't a legitimate threat from beyond the arc. With the three-point shot crucial in international play (due to the fact that the line is a mere 20 feet, 6 inches from the basket), it is imperative that a team boast at least one consistent threat from the outside.

Even still, any team boasting players with the names of Iverson, Duncan and Marion shouldn't lose by 19 points to Puerto Rico in the preliminary round. And then lose again six days later to Lithuania. And then lose once again in the semifinal round to an Argentina team that would go on to capture the gold medal.

To be fair, the level of basketball talent around the world has improved immensely since the Dream Team captivated the world during the summer of '92. Even still, the USA Basketball selection committee needs to be called out for their inability to put together a better roster for the 2004 Games (though, in all fairness, several NBA players declined the invitation to represent their country). Larry Brown also should be taken to task for his unwillingness to play his young stars, most notably LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. But regardless of who should get the lion's share of the blame, at the end of the day, a bronze medal is simply unacceptable.

In 2006, the time for pointing fingers is over. This year's FIBA World Championships is the dawn of a new era of USA Basketball. Ask anyone involved with the program and they'll tell you - there is some unfinished business that needs to be taken care of.

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Everything is different now.

Gone are the days when the United States could cobble together a motley crew of NBA stars, let them practice a handful of times, and then unleash them onto the world, dominating Angola and Zimbabwe and all countries in between. The rest of the world has closed the gap - if not talent-wise, then by their sheer ability to play as a cohesive unit.

In this year's World Championships, Argentina and Spain will serve as the primary competition for the U.S. team. Defending Olympic champion Argentina is loaded, boasting NBA talent in Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni and Carlos Defino, and Spanish League first-division stars Luis Scola and Pepe Sanchez.

Pau Gasol is the heart and soul of the Spanish team, but Euroleague stars Juan Carlos Navarro and Jorge Garbajosa (who recently signed with the Toronto Raptors) are extremely talented complimentary players. Simply put, returning the United States to its former level of prominence will be a not be simply about being wise with the roster.

Which is why an invitation to join this current team came with a price. USA Basketball asked 24 of the best players in the NBA to compete for 12 spots on the national team. In return, the players had to agree to a three-year commitment - a promise that should ensure that the 12 men representing the United States at the 2008 Olympics will be far more prepared than teams of recent memory.

It's obvious that the selection committee, led by Phoenix Suns' president Jerry Colangelo and Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, has placed the emphasis squarely on the fundamentals of the team game. Make no mistake about it: these players were specifically hand-picked based on their ability to, as former USA Basketball head coach Larry Brown would say, "play the right way."

Under normal circumstances, forwards like Shane Battier and Bruce Bowen would not have even been considered for a spot on a team such as this. But desperate times call for desperate measures as defense has been sorely lacking from the last two iterations of Team USA.

The rest of the roster is a stark departure from the squad that represented the United States at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Only Anthony, James and Dwyane Wade are holdovers from the previous regime. None of the three even started a game in Athens, and the trio averaged a mere 15.1 points per game in limited action.

Fast-forward two years: James, Wade and Anthony are far better players than they were in 2004, and with players such as Elton Brand, Dwight Howard and Gilbert Arenas rounding out the roster, the U.S. should be able to restore some of the luster lost over the past four years.

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Of course, any success this summer will be rendered moot if the United States doesn't capture the gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Only then, will the doubts (and doubters) finally be put to rest.

But the journey begins now, and the first step is capturing the FIBA World Championship trophy on September 3. On that day, if all goes according to plan, the 12 members of Team USA will take their rightful place on the podium and The Star Spangled Banner will begin to play. And when that happens, it won't just be our national anthem that will be heard - it will be a song of redemption as well.

 

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