US basketball's 'wolf pack' heads back to Olympics
Nobody remembers whose idea it was, or when it was first mentioned. A couple players just assumed it was the plan all along.
Memories may fade after four years, but these friendships haven't, nor has the desire to spend another summer together.
Sometime during the 2008 Olympics, even before the U.S. men's basketball team won the gold medal, the core players decided they would be coming back in 2012. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Deron Williams love playing together on the court and hanging out off it, and once one of them decided he was going back, that meant they all had to go back.
So they flew to London on Thursday, along with fellow remaining '08 holdover Kobe Bryant, returning to the Olympics for a country that only eight years ago had fallen so far it couldn't find guys who wanted to play once, let alone multiple times.
''These are guys I talk to just about every day,'' Paul said, with Dwyane Wade also included in that group. ''I knew Bron wanted to do it. D-Wade wanted to do it, but his injury set him back. I knew Melo was in, so we've got one of those things where regardless what anybody says, once one or two of us commit to something, we're all in.''
That sounds good during the fun times, but things change in four years. Bryant is the only one of the five who even plays for the same NBA team he did in '08, with James leaving Cleveland for Miami, Paul and Anthony forcing their way to bigger markets, and Utah trading Williams in case he decided to do the same thing.
''In the locker room after the game when we won the gold medal, there was a euphoric feeling,'' coach Mike Krzyzewski said. ''So sometimes when you have that euphoric feeling, you say things at that moment that you're not necessarily thinking about four years later.''
And true, their commitment wasn't always firm. Just two years later, all the players took a pass on playing in the world basketball championship. But they couldn't let go of the plan to wear the red, white and blue together again on the Olympic stage.
''It's easier said than done,'' said Anthony, like James, back for his third Olympics. ''When the gold-medal game was over, we was all talking about, 'we've got to do this again, we've got to do this again, we've got to come back,' and then 2010 came and none of us played on that. And then after that, we committed and said we were going to do it one last time.''
The commitment required for another tour was so great that Krzyzewski, a U.S. Military Academy graduate who has served on 12 U.S. teams since 1979, took longer than the players to sign on again. Told his coach's theory about saying something in the spur of the moment that's soon forgotten, Paul indicated that doesn't apply to this group.
''All of us got a funny relationship. Two of us could say we're going to dinner, one of us could be sleepy, but that one is going to go,'' he said. ''So it's one of those things where we're such a tight-knit group, sort of like the wolf pack.''
Still, it was a little surprising in Beijing when they said they wanted another Olympic ticket, and still is now that none changed his mind. The seasons are long and the summers are short - particularly this one, with the NBA lockout delaying the finish of the season. All of them had played at least two straight summers, with Anthony and James doing three in a row, to honor USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo's requirement of a multiyear commitment to the national team to play in the Olympics.
But James and Anthony have been friends since before coming into the NBA together in 2003, as have Paul and Williams since being chosen with back-to-back picks in the top five of the 2005 draft. They never seem far from each other on the practice court, often with friends or family nearby, and weren't going to pass up another chance to return.
''It was always talk about what we was going to do, who was going to come back, you know, and then everybody was like 'I'll be back.' It was easy,'' Anthony said. ''At one of them practices, I remember sitting down and everybody was asking each other like, 'What are you going to do? What are you going to do?' And from that day on, we knew who was going to be on that team, who was going to come back. Even with Kobe, he was like, 'I'll be there in London.' So once we had everybody committed, it was a no-brainer.''
Wade and Chris Bosh had to pull out with injuries, the absence of his Miami teammates perhaps part of the reason James doesn't seem as cheerful as expected for a guy who just won his first NBA title. Dwight Howard also was hurt, and a few guys who couldn't crack the rotation or the club weren't invited back.
''I knew I was in, CP was in, LeBron said he was in, Melo, we had all talked about coming back, even before we won,'' Williams said. ''Most of the guys were committed. I think the guys that Jerry wanted back, the three that didn't from that team all got hurt.''
Colangelo had to loosen his rules this time. James' free agency and Anthony's wedding, and the coast-to-coast partying that followed both, made it impractical to play in 2010. Colangelo ended up giving all the '08ers a pass, assuring them they would be welcomed back in 2012.
And here they are, answering their London calling.
''I mean, four years, when you look at it, is a long time. Especially when they told us that we didn't have to play, the guys from '08, didn't have to play in the world championships in '10,'' Anthony said. ''So we really didn't know who was going to come back in the span of four years, but in the last year, that's when guys really stepped up.''
As if there were any doubt.
''I knew I wanted to play again in 2012,'' Paul said. ''When I found it was London, all right, just let me know when, Coach.''
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