- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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David Stern is not making predictions about Team USA's medal chances. The closest thing to fortune-telling from the NBA commissioner is his revised view on player selection for future Olympic basketball squads.
"What we've seen here is us deciding to send the best young players, and I think that's what's going to happen from here on in," Stern told ESPN.com. "The U.S. teams will be younger (from now on), and I think that's a good thing."
The Americans, coached by Larry Brown, open the European portion of their pre-Olympic warm-up schedule with games Tuesday and Wednesday against Italy and Germany in Cologne, both to be televised by ESPN. The experience gained by playing in unfriendly locales -- Belgrade and Istanbul are the next, noisier stops -- is crucial for a team with an average age of just 23.6.
It's a young team by necessity for this Olympiad, after seven big-name veterans withdrew from Team USA and seven more declined invitations. Yet Stern wants to make it a regular practice to pick newer faces because they bring enthusiasm to the international arena, and because he questions whether it's reasonable to expect the best players in the game to devote multiple summers to USA Basketball when they're routinely playing 100-game seasons counting exhibitions and playoffs.
"I'm not sure whether our players should play in two (Olympic) games or only one (Olympics)," Stern said. "Younger is OK with me."
Of course, from a USAB perspective, folks like Brown are hoping that the really young ones -- namely LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Amare Stoudemire -- will still want to represent their country in the 2008 Olympics in China ... as seasoned vets of the international game by that time.
Duncan has concerns, and so does his coach
Tim Duncan doesn't deny that he has given some thought to Team USA's lack of dependable perimeter threats, after that same problem struck down Duncan's Spurs in the NBA playoffs.
Duncan also concedes that Team USA is vulnerable in the forthcoming Olympics because of its dearth of experience internationally.
It's those two trouble spots alone, according to Duncan, that give meaning to the Yanks' forthcoming exhibition tour.
"I think this trip will answer a lot of our questions," Duncan said.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, meanwhile, has his own source of night sweats. Popovich, Brown's top assistant, takes great pride in Duncan's decision to stay with Team USA after so many of his teammates from last summer's qualifying team pulled out. For Pop, though, that means first-hand fretting as Duncan tries to lead the Americans to a gold ... and avoid an injury that could severely impact San Antonio's season.
"Our owner is a nervous wreck, and I'll be a nervous wreck," Popovich said. "But this goes above and beyond in my opinion. These are things you only have an opportunity once in a lifetime for most guys, whether you're a coach or a player. I think it says a lot about Timmy that he would take this time when he could rest -- and he needs it as much as anybody.
"He spent his whole summer last year (with Team USA), after going to the (NBA) championship, and he was tired this season. He said, 'I'm going to Athens anyway.' I'll be concerned about him next season being even more tired, but I just have to give him all the credit in the world, for understanding the importance of this, what it can mean. Because (winning a gold) would be a thrill equal to or better than an NBA championship, in my opinion."
Popovich, remember, is a pretty patriotic guy, having launched his basketball career at the Air Force Academy.
Security fears, anyone? "I'll be honest as hell with you," Team USA forward Lamar Odom said last week. "I did write out a will before taking this trip." ... Stern recently revealed that a foreign basketball federation (which he wouldn't identify by name) asked him to speak with an NBA player from that country to help convince the player to represent his country this summer. "It's happening all over," Stern said of the difficulty getting NBA stars to play internationally in the offseason. "It's not just an American phenomenon." ... Allen Iverson, on Olympic co-favorite Argentina: "They put us in a dogfight last summer. They've got a great team, and it's not their athletic ability or anything. They play the game with their mind. They play like a John Stockton-Karl Malone type of game. They think the game. They play together, and that's what we're going to have to do." ... Iverson, mere days before Brown suspended him from Team USA's exhibition opener against Puerto Rico: "To me, he's the best coach in the world."
1dBonnie D. Ford