- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- On the very first day of practice for the U.S. men's Olympic basketball team, Carmelo Anthony boldly predicted that the Yanks would return home from Athens with the gold medal.
Like most players on the U.S. team, Anthony has no clue. He has no idea what he's in for, he has no idea what kind of competition he's going to face and he has no idea how arbitrary things can get with international rules and referees.
Larry Brown knows, however. And that may be the best thing that the U.S. has going for it as it readies for the upcoming Olympic Games. Brown and his coaching staff will be spending the next two-plus weeks not only acquainting players with each other but also pounding into their noggins this rather novel concept: It won't be easy.
For the first time ever, excluding the 1980 Games, when all of the Americans did not attend, the United States cannot be judged as the prohibitive favorite to win the men's gold. They have a team in which no player has ever played a minute of Olympic basketball, while opposition countries have national teams who are well versed in the international game and have played years together. They have had an evolving roster that has been sharply downgraded from the original wish list to the point where one-third of the 12-man team wasn't even in the NBA at this time last year.
In short, you don't -- and won't -- hear anyone refer to this group as any kind of Dream Team.
Can they do it? Sure. They still have Tim Duncan, who on his worst day is maybe the third-best player on the planet. As U.S. assistant Gregg Popovich noted, "You've got to have a big guy in the middle who they have to pay attention to because it balances what you do. It would have been a big problem without him."
They have Allen Iverson, who has shown a flair for the international game and appears to be ultra-committed to the cause.
Beyond that, they have a lot of guys who might think they know what's coming, but, in reality, are callow and unenlightened about the situation. And it is up to the Master Builder himself, Brown, to construct this thing from scratch and field an unselfish, competitive and, ultimately, successful unit in three weeks time.
You think beating Shaq and Kobe in the NBA Finals was hard? That's a summer scrimmage compared to what Brown is now facing. No one thought he could beat the Lakers. Everyone expects he'll beat Lithuania, Argentina, Spain and Serbia and Montenegro.
But Brown doesn't have his A team and we all saw what happened in Indianapolis at the World Championships when the United States doesn't send its best. Wasn't there going to be an outpouring of support and commitment from the NBA's best and brightest after the Indy debacle? Weren't the top players going to line up for the privilege to play in Athens and remind everyone that the United States still has the best?
There was a brief, initial flurry of patriotism/commitment from the big guys. But all that's left from the original nine are Duncan and Iverson. Brown figured he'd have Jason Kidd running the show, Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant as wings, and Jermaine O'Neal, Karl Malone and maybe even Kevin Garnett to man the middle. Of those, all but Garnett committed and then backed out. Garnett never accepted the invite; ditto for Shaquille O'Neal.
So Brown is left with an Olympic roster with an average age of 23.6 years. Half of the 12 players have two years or less of NBA experience and one Olympian, Charlotte Bobcat draftee Emeka Okafor, has none. Brown is supposed to beat seasoned, experienced teams like Argentina and Lithuania with this?
Brown was asked after his second day of practice if he thought the players had any idea how talented and tough the opposition would be. The coach said that Popovich, an assistant on the George Karl-coached Indianapolis team, already had talked to the players. Brown said that Shawn Marion, the only holdover from the dysfunctional Indy team, also had spoken. Brown wonders if any of it got through.
"We've tried to make them aware of that," he said. "That's why we're playing these exhibition games in tough places. Hopefully, they'll learn from that."
In Brown, however, the United States might have the ideal man to build a team in three weeks. This is not a roll-the-ball-out-and-play type of team. Brown will have to teach as much as he'll have to coach and, for Brown, that means he's in nirvana. He already had the team report for two-a-days and, if it were his choice, he'd have day-long practices followed by a night of individual drills.
But we might be asking too much even of the Hall of Famer to construct a team that plays like a team and wins the gold. Already, Brown sees signs that even some players who are considered NBA stars are lacking in basic fundamentals. Can't blame the player, Brown says. The high school coaches don't teach anymore and, in college, kids are funneled into systems.
"You know me," he said. "I consider myself a college coach. Or a high school coach."
This team will be expertly coached, not only by Brown but also by the assistants, led by Popovich, UNC's Roy Williams, and Clemson's Oliver Purnell. It's hard to envision a situation where the team won't be prepared for what is coming. The main enemies are time -- many countries already have been at work for weeks -- and the naïvete that produces remarks like those of Anthony. (What's scary is that probably most of the team agrees with Anthony.)
Duncan and Iverson will provide leadership, even if neither has faced a grueling international test with witless refs and restless fans. (Sorry, but the United States was a lock to qualify last summer in San Juan.) And what happens if Duncan gets into foul trouble?
The United States has not lost an Olympic basketball game since 1988. That includes a 24-0 record in Olympiads when using NBA players and 26-0 record in Olympic qualifying events with NBA players.
But Brown was on the sidelines in Sydney four years ago when the United States came thisclose to losing to Lithuania. And Popovich was on the sidelines two years ago in Indianapolis when the United States lost to Argentina, Serbia & Montenegro and Spain. They know what's in store.
It's great that Anthony thinks that the United States will bring home the gold. But the words of a 63-year-old head coach with a 43-3 record on six previous USA Basketball staffs carries considerably more weight than the adolescent blurtings of a 20-year-old who has never faced the kind of competition that awaits in Athens.
There are a lot of excellent coaches in the game today, but this team, with its makeup and with its schedule, is in the perfect hands. Brown might not be able to extract a gold medal with this bunch, but it won't be for lack of trying, lack of teaching and lack of preparation.
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
3dBonnie D. Ford