LAS VEGAS, July 22, 2008 -- Forget family car rides to go fishing at the lake, trips to the shore or spending time at home to work on putting the finishing touches on that new deck out by the pool.

The last three summers, three players – Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and LeBron James - have anchored their NBA off-season around sweating it out in a gym as a member of U.S.A. Basketball.

Four more players – Carlos Boozer, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade – were part of the original player pool that U.S. Men’s Senior National Team Managing Director Jerry Colangelo put together prior to the 2006 FIBA World Championship after he was charged with bringing U.S.A. Basketball back to gold medal form following the debacle that was the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Four of those seven players – Anthony, Boozer, James and Wade – were on that bronze medal team four years ago. Ironically the team was coached by Larry Brown whose motto is to play the “right way,” yet there were myriad problems with the Athens squad, starting with the haste in which the roster was slapped together.

Now the current U.S. team hopes that having the continuity that’s bred from keeping the same core group of players together over the last few years will pay off with the ultimate prize in Beijing.

“When everybody first heard the three-year commitment thing, everybody kind of went to check their schedules to see if they can do it and now that we’ve done it, I think it was a great thing to do,” Wade said. “It really built something. It really built a family atmosphere. You kind of know the guys on and off the floor so it makes it a lot easier than us getting together a week and a half before we go to China and compete so it’s great.”

Wade couldn’t play with the team last summer at the FIBA Americas Tournament because of a shoulder injury, but still showed up for U.S.A.’s minicamp to spend time with his teammates prior to the tourney.

“I wanted to play,” said Wade, who was named a tri-captain of the squad along with Anthony and James when the team went to compete in Japan in 2006. “I played in 2004, I played in 2006 and then 2007 I wasn’t healthy enough to play. I really wanted to be out there with the guys, the continuity that they had, the excitement that they were playing with and it was in Vegas – it was in America – so I really wanted to be a part of it, but at the same time, I had to get healthy and knowing that the big picture was eight-eight-oh-eight and now I’m healthy enough to be here so I’m happy that I did be patient and do everything the way I did it.

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski says that having the same personnel in the fold year after year makes his job easier. He likened it to a business where everything runs smoother when the moral is high because co-workers get along.

“It’s just that it’s a process,” Krzyzewski said. “Our guys know each other, they know us, when they come here for this training camp it’s not like I have to develop a relationship with any one of them. We have really good relationships so you can get on to the business of putting a team together.”

Apart from building friendship and trust, the time together has helped the maturation process of Anthony and James, in particular, whose first U.S.A. Basketball experience came following their rookie seasons in the NBA.

“Playing in ’04, sitting back and having that experience, it helped me out a lot,” Anthony said, focusing on how the more time he’s spent playing international basketball, the better he’s become at playing it. “It cleared a lot of things up, opened my eyes up to a lot of things that over the last four years I’ve learned that game a lot – spacing, what I can do, what I can’t do – that helped me a lot, just being a part of ’04.”

James went as far as to say that in Greece him and Anthony “really didn’t have a role” on the team. “We thought we did,” James said, “but we didn’t.”

Now in their roles, asides from being relied upon to fill the starting forward spots, they’ve grown into vocal leaders as well.

Listen to a U.S.A. practice and you’ll hear James take advantage of a in a break in the action to explain a nuance of the play they’re working on to his team. Anthony, meanwhile, is constantly chirping and offering encouragement when his teammates show hustle. (“You got that Kob’! You got that Kob’”).

“It’s just who I am,” James said. “I’ve always been vocal in making sure guys know where to be at in the right situations at the right times and knowing when to say things.”

Colangelo sees it as King James taking his place at the throne.

“More so than any other player, I’d say LeBron James has grown,” Colangelo said. “It’s very, very obvious. In the last two years, it’s unbelievable.”

Added assistant coach Jim Boeheim who’s been around Anthony since the Fall of 2002 when Melo was an incoming freshman at Syracuse, “[Anthony and James] like to talk (laughing). LeBron, he’s very good, he’s very vocal and I think that help. It helps us. That communication takes time for that to develop and those two guys coincidentally have been here all three years and I think that’s a big significant reason why we’re better today than we were when we started this thing.”

Even with an established crew of players, it never hurts to add the 2007-08 league MVP or the active leader in career triple-doubles to your team.

“It feels good to be there every step of the way,” Howard said, “but we’re glad to add the pieces that we did in the world’s best player in Kobe Bryant and the list goes on.”

It’s been a journey that sprung from disappointment in Athens, that has already wrought so many positives results – the camaraderie, the growth, the sense of family – yet there’s still a gold medal that needs to be won before this process can be labeled a success story.

“For the guys that were on the [bronze medal] team, the four of us – myself, Dwyane, Bron and Melo – we look forward to righting that wrong,” Boozer said. “That still sticks with us to today. We feel like we let our country down.”

If these guys can come home with the gold, they'll certainly deserve the summer of '09 off.