Olympics

Column: US Olympic basketball team starts slow

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LAS VEGAS (AP)

(Eds: With AP Photos.)By TIM DAHLBERGAP Sports Columnist

LeBron James was stretched out against a wall Wednesday, answering a few questions before lacing up his Nikes. Carmelo Anthony was doing the same thing in the corner of the gym, while Kobe Bryant went about his business across the way.

Talent was never going to be a problem for the U.S. men's basketball team heading to London as defending gold medal champions. Never has been, ever since the Dream Team got together 20 years ago and changed the way the world plays basketball.

''We understand why we're here,'' James said. ''We're all superstars on our respective teams. Now we all have to be superstars on this team.''

Assuming that happens, any worries about bringing the gold home from London should pretty much vanish. Sure, Spain figures to be tough and the Russians and Argentinians will pose challenges. And there are some who question the lack of height inside on this team.

But the U.S. roster is so deep and athletic that the early chatter is that this team could be even better than the last gold medal team - even without Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, both key performers in Beijing, along with that team's only true center, Dwight Howard.

''We have the potential,'' James said. ''But we'll see.''

Indeed, potential is a word used often about this year's version of the Dream Team, which opens its Olympic run with an exhibition game Thursday night against the Dominican Republic. Bryant said the other day he believes this team would even beat the original Dream Team, and coach Mike Krzyzewski - an assistant on the 1992 team - seemed inclined to agree with him.

''This team can be very good,'' Krzyzewski said. ''They're all in their prime or coming into their prime. In `92 you had Magic and Larry Bird, who were past their prime. But if they were all in their prime together in 1992 we'd never see a team like that again.''

Potential, though, will only take a team so far. And so far in their brief training camp on the UNLV campus, things haven't gone exactly to plan.

A team that was supposed to be in place even before arriving last week in this gambling city wasn't, thanks to injuries to Wade, Bosh, Howard and Derrick Rose. The full team wasn't even announced until Saturday, when Blake Griffin, Andre Iguodala and James Harden were added to the roster.

Deron Williams couldn't scrimmage until signing his new $98 million contract Wednesday, Griffith missed a day of practice while tending to details of his new contract, and James has been limited in practice to rest up from the NBA playoffs. Oh, and Chris Paul sprained his right thumb on the first day of practice and missed several scrimmages.

Now, less than three weeks before the U.S. tips off against France in its opening game at the Olympics, the team is very much a work in progress.

''It's a disjointed start,'' Krzyzewski said. ''That has an impact - a negative impact - that we have to overcome.''

The buzz around the UNLV gym on a day when temperatures approaching 115 degrees didn't deter several hundred fans from waiting outside for autographs was about the opening exhibition game and the chance to start figuring out positions and rotations. The game against the Dominican Republic in the 18,000-seat UNLV arena is sold out, evidence of the star power of the team if not the quality of the competition itself.

After practicing for less than a week, the first real game this team will play together could provide a lot of clues to determining how good it will be.

''It's a showcase, but it's a statement game, too,'' said Anthony, a member of the 2008 team. ''It will show us where we're at.''

Five members of the team that beat Spain in the final in Beijing will be getting their second chance at gold medals in the second Olympics under Krzyzewski, who was brought in by USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo after a somewhat embarrassing performance by the U.S. in 2004 in Athens. Since then the national team has gone 39-1, but hasn't lost since dropping a shocker to Greece in the 2006 World Championships.

Though the team coasted into the final in Beijing, Spain was in the gold medal game deep into the second half before the Americans pulled away for the win. The 2008 team bought into Krzyzewski's approach, and this team seems to be on the same page, too, joking with trainers Wednesday as they went through stretching exercises.

''We've been doing this for seven years and I've coached 10 of these guys,'' Krzyzewski said. ''We have great relationships and I think that helps a lot. They're professionals, and they're good guys.''

They're also used to having a target on their backs. Every game against the United States is the biggest game of the Olympics for their opponents, and one loss could doom their gold medal chances.

They're off to a stumbling start, but it's hardly time to start panicking. A few exhibition games, a few more weeks of practice, and everyone will know their roles and responsibilities.

It shouldn't be long before they're good as gold.

----

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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