Have you noticed? The world just doesn't seem to hate the U.S. men's national basketball team quite the way it once did.
It's understandable, seeing as our demeanor isn't as hate-inspiring. There was a time when we showed up thinking that the names on the backs of the jerseys, as much as the three letters on the front, would take care of business. The world noticed, ultimately made us pay for that arrogance and reveled in seeing it.
That was then. USA's basketball dominance has been reestablished now. If there was any question, the just-completed romp in the FIBA World Cup for another gold medal answered it (129-92 win over Serbia). While the names on the back were still notable, none served as the cornerstone of every victory.
It was a collective, mix-and-match effort. And while this year's squad apparently drew inspiration from hearing that Spain was favored over it in some circles, the reason the U.S. can once again claim undisputed rights to the basketball throne is because we, as a basketball nation, showed some respect, not because we were deprived of it.
That much is clear. The current national program works harder, prepares better and, arguably, cares more. Who deserves the most credit for creating this new image, not only within the program but also to the world at large?
The answer, at least for some, is the man who is not exactly known for readily acknowledging that anyone is on his level: Kobe Bean Bryant.
Tony Ronzone, longtime international scout, current player personnel director for the Dallas Mavericks and former Team USA executive, believes Sunday's success, along with every other international triumph over the last seven years, can be traced back to the first quarter of Group B's final game in the 2007 FIBA Americas in Las Vegas, Nevada.
That's when Bryant, having asked for the challenge of stopping the tournament's leading scorer to that point, Brazil's Leandro Barbosa, hounded Barbosa into losing his dribble and then dove onto the floor to retrieve the ball near midcourt.
"I swear that was the turning point," says Ronzone. "You saw the best player in the world at that time sacrificing his body for a loose ball. That turned us. Great players can play that way. It's looking in the mirror and saying, 'We have to play that way.'"
Team USA had not been playing that way in, well, forever. The first several iterations of the Dream Team didn't need to go all out because the talent disparity was too great. The difference shrunk as the honor of playing lost its appeal and the NBA's top stars began ducking out. The program squeaked by for a couple more gold medals while slapping together the biggest names the program could attract, but it all unraveled in 2002 in heart-of-USA-basketball Indianapolis at the FIBA championships.
The team was awash with bad body language. Paul Pierce and coach George Karl were feuding. Baron Davis wasn't happy about his role coming off the bench behind Andre Miller. Several of the big men—Elton Brand, Ben Wallace, Antonio Davis—weren't great fits for the international game. It would all amount to three shocking losses and a sixth-place finish.
"There were 12 private limos waiting to get out of town as soon as they lost," said one NBA general manager, describing the collective attitude of the squad.
Larry Brown, coach of the 2004 Olympic team, recognized that the program no longer could simply invite the best available players but had to develop a deep pool of candidates and make them earn spots on the roster.
Director Jerry Colangelo heeded the advice, inviting dozens of players to training camp, supposedly with no guarantees. It was a way of acknowledging that the world had caught up to us, but it was a quiet way.
There was nothing quiet about Bryant's approach, though. He fully acknowledged that he studied a copious amount of carefully selected tape of Barbosa, pored over statistical tendencies and forfeited any interest in attempting to score on his own. Barbosa, who had been averaging 27 points a game, went 1-of-7 from the field and didn't score against Bryant.
Bryant didn't have to disclose all that preparation. He could've been like scores of Team USA players before him, who suggested their biggest challenge was fighting off ennui or being unfamiliar with the international rules or referees or limited practice time together.
Instead, he approached the game as if Barbosa were Michael Jordan and this were Game 7 in the NBA Finals. It might've been a painful dose of respect, but it was respect nonetheless and more than anyone in a Team USA uniform had shown a foreign opponent maybe ever.
"Coach K would use that play (of Bryant diving for the loose ball), showing a clip of it, to remind everyone that it was 'We, not I,'" said Ronzone, referring to national team coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Coach K is among the other influences that have put the U.S. back on top, to be sure, including a general dissipation of the level of international competition. Some of that is because a few powerhouse national teams have grown old and have been unable to reinvent themselves; some, too, is because the top young players in other countries are more focused on finding their way to the NBA than playing for their countries.
"It used to be so much different globally," said Rich Sheubrooks, who helped organize the Nike Hoop Summit and just retired after serving as director of global scouting for several NBA teams, most recently the Utah Jazz. "I don't think it's the same burning desire that 'I want to play for my country' as it once was. They're looking out for who they are now."
That wasn't as prevalent seven years ago when Bryant earned his floor burns at the Thomas & Mack Center. The thirst for beating the U.S. was strong, and the inherent intimidation factor was gone. Bryant diminished the first and took a step toward restoring the second through the simple act of saying to Barbosa and the rest of the world: "You deserve my full attention. My job now is to make you wish you hadn't."
It won't rank high on Kobe's list of personal achievements. There's a chance it won't be acknowledged at all beyond the 2008 Olympic gold medal it inspired. But considering where the national program is now, seven years later, and how the players within it are approaching their jobs as representatives of USA's basketball preeminence, perhaps it should.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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