It’s cool now to play for your country

It never would have occurred in the past, the elite young players in the country being absent under the tutelage of the guys they admire most — LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

But while The King was juggling his annual LeBron James Skills Academy in Ohio earlier this month and also preparing to make the most important decision of his life, the nation’s top-ranked high school player, Michael Gilchrist, was about 5,000 miles away in Germany playing for his country.

He wasn’t alone, either.

Gilchrist was joined by four other "elite” prospects ranked in the Top 10 of the senior class: James McAdoo, Brad Beal, Marquis Teague and Adonis Thomas. Andre Drummond, the popular choice for the No. 1 player in the Class of 2012, was also wearing USA on his chest as a member of the 12-member squad.

A week or so before that crew tore through the field to win the gold medal at the inaugural U17 World Championships in Hamburg, Austin Rivers, another one of the young rising stars in the country, helped lead the U.S. U18 team to a gold medal in the FIBA Americas Championship in San Antonio.

This never would have happened in the past. Not in this age where individuality reigns supreme.

Florida’s Billy Donovan was one of the dozen or so head coaches that made their way over to Germany to watch the U17 World Championships.

"It looked like they were playing for something bigger than themselves,” Donovan said.

"It was one of the most talented young teams that USA Basketball has ever put together,” added Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, who went to Germany and was also an assistant on the U18 team.

That’s a rarity.

These guys normally would have elected for the state-side attention and the opportunity to go up and schmooze with LeBron and/or Durant over the chance to represent their country.

However, it all changed when LeBron, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and many of the NBA’s superstars stood at the podium after winning the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics.

"I’ve wanted to play for USA all my life,” Gilchrist said upon his return from Germany. "To win a gold medal.”

All my life?

What Gilchrist really means is that he’s wanted to represent his country since that day two years ago when Team USA won gold in Beijing.

"Of course,” Gilchrist said of whether the 2008 Olympic team was the ultimate selling point. "I love LeBron James.”

LeBron, Kobe & Co. made it cool again to represent their country.

It was the case way back in 1992 when Michael, Magic and Larry helped form the original Dream Team, but Gilchrist and his teammates were dealing with diaper rash.

Seeing the passion and the smiles on the faces of the 2008 team — a team that also consisted of Chris Paul, Chris Bosh, Deron Williams, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard — rekindled that spirit.

"Young kids watched it and look up to those guys,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who also coached the Olympic team to gold and will coach the 2012 Olympic group.

"It was a big factor.”

And it’s rubbed off on the young players.

McAdoo, a North Carolina commit, called Gilchrist about a year ago and asked him to join him on this year’s team. The No. 1 player in America wasted little time in making the commitment. The same was the case with guys like Beal, Teague, Drummond and Rivers.

"I watched the best players in the world play for the USA,” said Rivers, the son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "When you watch those guys represent your country, you want to do the same.”

"I love it,” added Doc Rivers. "The USA Basketball stuff means something to Austin and those other kids now. Watching Kobe and LeBron play together changed these kids’ perception.”

That should continue as guys like Gilchrist, who accepted his role coming off the bench in Germany, have now made it easier for those coming up behind them to choose USA Basketball over an AAU event.

"It was a huge honor,” said Beal, who was the MVP of the U17 event.

"It was the best experience of my life basketball-wise,” McAdoo added. "Being able to wear USA across my chest and win a gold medal.”

"The gold medal means a lot to me,” Gilchrist chimed in. "I started crying when I got it.”

Each one of them raved about their experience and said they would welcome the chance to put on the USA jersey again.

"My goal is to one day play in the Olympics,” McAdoo said.

Three years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case.

Now, it sounds kinda cool.