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The Redeem Team had a golden glow upon accepting its medals in Beijing.
Branded as saviors and embraced in a star-spangled bear hug by American fans, the U.S. men's basketball team hit all its targets en route to a gold medal in Beijing.
Not only did the Americans win, but they did so with a spirit of togetherness and self-sacrifice that drew rave reviews.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams and Dwight Howard were feted as heroes—a new generation of stars who were committed to international competition and intent on restoring America's place as the basketball superpower.
That narrative feels hopelessly naive four years later.
James is one of the game's great villains after linking up with fellow Olympians Wade and Bosh on a Miami-based super team. And after Anthony, Paul, Williams and Howard were implicated in similarly styled power plays, the entire 2008 Olympic basketball experience seems shrouded in skepticism.
Perhaps our American basketball superheroes didn't spend their Beijing adventure bonding over banana splits and patriotic fervor. Maybe they were speaking of collusion and trade demands.
At least it seems that way in retrospect.
With most, if not all, of the Redeem Team's stars returning in 2012 to defend America's gold medal, one wonders how the fans stateside will receive them.
Will Americans suppress NBA allegiances and throw their support behind Uncle Sam's ballers?
Or will questions over player intentions—further stoked by Wade's recent comments about player compensation—divide the fan base, or worse, prompt disinterest?
And I say all that without one mention of the always-improving international field.
Spain, the 2008 silver medalist, is back with Serge Ibaka in tow. France, anchored by Tony Parker, Joakim Noah and Boris Diaw, looks stronger than ever. Argentina still has its core from the 2004 gold-medal team. And Brazil's front line of Anderson Varejao, Tiago Splitter and Nene should be among the tournament's best.
On paper, the Americans have more talent than any of those challengers, but anything less than their best effort will lead to trouble.
And even if they do give their best effort, will fans stateside embrace them?