ATLANTA -- After its slap of reality and sixth-place finish at last summer's World Championships, USA Basketball began the process of putting itself back together again Thursday by announcing the first four players for the team that'll try and qualify for the 2004 Olympics in August.
The selections of Ray Allen, Jason Kidd, Tim Duncan and Tracy McGrady are a nice start. But how else can the fractured reputation of U.S. hoops be put back together again? We went to the best source possible -- the king's men, or in this case, this year's All-Stars in David Stern's NBA -- for some suggestions.
1. Play the best players.
Even Kidd's 3-year-old son, T.J., could've come up with that idea. But it took an American team with NBA players falling flat on its face for everyone to get serious about the declining state of Team USA and claim some responsibility for its well-being.
"I think we've got enough guys collectively in the league to do that but we've got to put our best talent on the floor," Boston Celtics forward Antoine Walker said. "It's kind of like when Michael Jordan played with Magic (Johnson) and (Larry) Bird (on the original Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics), I mean, we had all those guys out on the floor, and when you do that, you give yourself every opportunity to win. Guys can give the best they have, but you have to put the best guys out on the floor."
But everyone's heard that the sky is falling on the U.S., that the world has finally caught up to American ballers and is running step for step and primed to pass them on their outside shoulder. Is America's best still enough to do the job?
Don't even go there, says Kevin Garnett.
"Granted, the world is good and they have some good players and have some good teams, but we set the standard," Garnett said. "USA Basketball is the best basketball, and I won't come off of that."
2. Stick with one team.
To beat the world's best teams, some critics believe it's high time the U.S. joined them by making its top talent commit to playing internationally for more than just one tournament. Obviously, making mercenaries out of NBA players no longer works.
"Yugoslavia, they've got All-Stars. They've got guys who have played together for years, and they practice a lot longer and they fine-tune it. They play a lot more of a team game and they know each other. We'll have 12 new guys each year for every different event and practice for two weeks and just start to really learn to play together."
"I just think we need a little bit more time together to practice and get prepared for the rest of the world," Francis said. "While everybody is working hard, we're just chilling. All we do is come out for 10, 12 days. We need to keep our guys together."
But how do you get millionaires to sacrifice their precious offseason time to something that'll hurt their profiles more than help it? Stephon Marbury has a solution.
3. Restore patriotic pride.
According to Marbury, no right-thinking American who makes a living playing in the world's greatest league should have to be forced to represent the red, white and blue.
"That's something that you should want to play in," Marbury said. "That's beyond the dream. That's representing your country."
Marbury speaks from experience. As a teen-ager, Marbury helped the U.S. win gold while playing for the Junior Olympic team in 1994.
"I know how proud it is," Marbury said. "You're not just playing for yourself. You're playing for everybody who's in the U.S. and your family and friends."
Let the record show that Marbury's first suggestion had more to do with looking out for No. 1. He was kidding, of course.
"First thing I'd do," he said, "is put me down at the point."
Filling out the roster
Eight to nine players will comprise the Olympic qualifying squad with three to four roster spots going to college players or Americans playing abroad professionally. McGrady believes that'll be enough to get qualify for the 2004 Olympics and make a statement in Athens. "We definitely have the players that are capable of just running through the whole tournament," he said.
The baddest man in sneakers right now concurs. Problem is, USA Basketball is still waiting word on whether Kobe Bryant will join this crusade to restore America's basketball pride.
His idea on how to fix Team USA? Basically, have head coach Larry Brown roll out the ball and let 'em play.
"You're talking about some of the best basketball players in the world," Bryant said. "We can pick up on strategies, pick up on defenses. Just go out there and execute our game plan."
And bring back the gold.
Joe Lago is the NBA editor for ESPN.com.