LONDON - Twenty years ago, the United States staked its claim to basketball primacy by sending the Dream Team to both charm and crush the world.
Today, another team from the United States takes on France to begin an Olympic tournament that could be the last of its rock-star kind.
This could be the last Olympics for LeBron James, for Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony. NBA commissioner David Stern has signaled that he may wish to switch to a model more like soccer, which sends players who are 23 and under, with only three older players allowed.
"We have to take care of business," said point guard Chris Paul. "This really could be the end. I hope that's not the way it plays out, but there are no guarantees."
So this U.S. team is in a different sort of place, trying to establish a legacy while also trying to figure out what the future may bring.
What is its mission, anyway? What will be its ultimate fate?
Other teams had clear nicknames and directives. There was the Dream Team in '92 and the Redeem Team in '08.
This team is what, exactly? Besides maybe the last of its kind?
It is against that backdrop that the U.S. tips off against France, the team with the second-most NBA players (6) in the tournament.
Nobody doubts that the U.S. will win. That is, if the team bus gets to the arena on time.
"We've gotten lost on all four of our bus trips," said head coach Mike Krzyzewski. "That's a pretty-good percentage. We should get the bus driver to sign up."
He could take the place of Derrick Rose, of course. Or Dwight Howard or Chris Bosh. Or Dwyane Wade or LaMarcus Aldridge or Blake Griffin. All those players are missing the Games because of injuries.
Even so, the U.S. remains the overwhelming favorite, if only because of the breathtaking presence of Kobe Bryant, James and Durant. Bryant and James both caught heat for saying they thought this team could beat the Dream Team, but what were they supposed to say? That, no question, they would lose?
They would lose, mind you. This team has obvious flaws. The absence of Howard, Bosh, Aldridge and Griffin has left it perilously thin up front. Recent No. 1 draft pick Anthony Davis was added to the team on the fly.
Both Argentina and Brazil were able to exploit this in relatively close losses during the exhibition schedule.
"This is a different kind of team," said Krzyzewski. "We have to play our style. We have to play fast and create a tempo in the game that is really conducive for us."
Said Paul: "If they want to see if LeBron can stop one of their big guys on one end, that's O.K. We'll see if their big guy can stay in front of LeBron on the other end."
Paul was smiling, as he said it. Meandering bus rides notwithstanding, the U.S. players have been in remarkably good cheer.
After failing to win the gold in Athens in '04, the U.S. tapped longtime Phoenix Suns executive Jerry Colangelo and Duke coach Krzyzewski to rebuild the national team.
"We have two goals," said Krzyzewski. "To win the gold medal and to represent the U.S. in basketball in the right way."
The second part is almost more impressive. The U.S. players have been unfailing gracious and enthusiastic in their public appearances.
They appear to genuinely like it over here, to be both humbled and moved to be part of the Olympic experience.
"The reason that it's so cool is that you're on the biggest team you'll ever be a part of," said Paul. "If you see a guy wearing a USA jersey, it's like, 'Hey, we're on the same team!'"
(Geoff Calkins, columnist for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., is part of the Scripps team covering the London Olympics.)
Copyright 2012 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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