New York For the U.S. men's basketball team, the road to Athens begins today inside a college gymnasium on the West Side of midtown Manhattan.
For the next nine days, the Americans will be cramming at the John Jay College gym for the Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico later this month.
"The guys that have been selected really want to be on this team and represent the U.S., and that's something I feel really good about," coach Larry Brown said. "They realize the competition is tough, and these guys want to make a statement based on the conversations I've had with them."
Brown, a former Kansas University coach, will be joined by former KU coach Roy Williams, who will be an assistant. KU product Nick Collison, a first-round draft choice of the Seattle Supersonics, is also on the U.S. roster.
"I'm extremely excited and extremely flattered to be a part of this," Williams said. "I am really looking forward to working with Larry and all the other people involved with USA Basketball.
"It's been a dream of mine for a long time to participate in something like this. I will do everything I possibly can to be a good assistant coach and to help out as much as possible."
Brown, whose ties to USA Basketball extend to being a member of the team in 1964, was not on hand last summer when the Americans, coached by George Karl and beset by injuries and discord, lost to Argentina, Yugoslavia and Spain at the World Championships, finishing sixth.
Brown led the U.S. team in 1999 qualifying and was an assistant under Rudy Tomjanovich at the 2000 Olympics.
USA Basketball officials felt Brown had the most success in recent years getting teams of All-Stars to mesh as a unit.
Qualifying should not be difficult this time, with three spots for Athens available to teams from North and South America.
Argentina and the United States are considered virtual locks, with Canada, Puerto Rico, Brazil and Venezuela the best contenders for the third berth.
The competition will be a whole lot stronger than it was four years ago in Puerto Rico, when the U.S. team was never seriously challenged and went 10-0.
"The game's gotten better," Brown said. "In '92, when we sent the Dream Team to Barcelona, the idea was to promote basketball around the world, and lo and behold we've found that the world has caught up. It's good for basketball. We find now that everyone around the world is playing our sport and playing it well."
His team has guards Ray Allen, Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd, Mike Bibby, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, and forwards Elton Brand, Karl Malone, Richard Jefferson and Collison. Tim Duncan and Jermaine O'Neal, power forwards on their NBA teams, will play center for the United States.
Malone, a member of the original Dream Team, has not played for a U.S. team since the 1996 Olympics -- a period when the Americans were still dominant. There were only a handful of European and other international players in the NBA at the time.
Now foreign players make up more than 15 percent of the league. And many have been playing with teammates on their national teams for years.
The Argentina-U.S. game last summer was a perfect case in point. Led by Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs and several players who began playing together in the mid-'90s on the country's junior team, Argentina ran its offensive sets to perfection and confounded the Americans with an array of finely tuned plays that repeatedly led to open layups.
Argentina defeated the United States 87-80 -- the first loss in international competition for an American team of NBA players.
Most shocking was the manner in which the victory was accomplished. The United States never led, tied it only once, trailed by as many as 20 and couldn't mount a comeback down the stretch.
In subsequent losses to Yugoslavia and Spain, another American weakness was exposed.
Unlike in the NBA, international basketball features very little use of timeouts to control the clock in the late stages of the fourth quarter. Players are not allowed to call timeouts under international rules, only coaches.
On the court, the three teams that defeated the Americans were much more comfortable managing a running clock.
It'll be Brown's job to get the U.S. team ready for those types of situations, and it's practically a given that the Americans will be tested several times over the course of the next year.
Raw talent alone will not get the job done anymore.
"We've got to really send a 'team' over there -- guys that play the right way," Brown said. "We have to prepare in order to be successful, and I'm confident the group coming to New York is aware of that. It's a big challenge going back to showing everyone we're the bast basketball players, and I'm looking forward to that."
The team will practice at John Jay through Aug. 18, playing an exhibition game against Puerto Rico next Friday at Madison Square Garden.
The U.S. team opens the Olympic qualifying tournament Aug. 20 against Brazil.