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Expectations of winning gold same, but journey is different

Team USA understands stakes, but knows landscape has changed

POSTED: Aug 1, 2016 7:51 AM ET

By Fran Blinebury

BY Fran Blinebury


Team USA embraces the challenge/burden of wearing the red, white and blue on the floor. The goal is the same, but the stage is much different than when the historic 1992 team played.

— Gold comes in many forms. There is gold 14K and 24K. There is gold-plated, gold-filled, gold-wrapped, even gold-flecked candy that you can sink your gold tooth into.

Then there is the kind of gold that Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and their friends will be looking to mine starting next week at the Rio Olympics.

"It's the gold standard," said forward Harrison Barnes. "It's way up there."

It is the bar that was set impossibly high by the original Dream Team of 1992 that featured all-time greats Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, to name a few. They not only swept through the Olympic tournament in Barcelona winning by an average of 44 points per game and never once requiring coach Chuck Daly to call a timeout, but they left a mark on the wall that successive American teams will always be measured against.

Hall of Fame: Dream Team

Perhaps the greatest basketball team ever assembled, the Dream Team brought the U.S. gold in 1992.

"Definitely," said Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson. "You don't want to disappoint. Since '06, Team USA hasn't lost a game. Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) has only lost one game his whole coaching career with Team USA. We really don't want to be that team that lets him down or the country down. People expect a lot out of us as they should.

"I think the world has gotten better since the Dream Team. You see it now in the NBA game. There's so many international guys on every team. I think we had 100 last year. So I think the world influence is a little bigger than it was back then. Nobody's gonna remember the score as long as we come along with the gold. But, yeah, living up to the reputation is always in the back of your head."

New York Knicks forward Anthony has become the de facto leader of the 2016 team, now playing in his fourth Olympics, a career that began with the desultory 2004 performance in Athens when Team USA limped home with a bronze medal that led to a revamping of the entire program.

"We try to keep that edge to know that if we do what we have to do it's a very high chance that we could win games by 30 or more points every game," Anthony said. "But if we come out and be too complacent and just think we got it from the jump, it won't happen."

It is both the driving force that pushes them on and a burden that each member of every new edition of Team USA must carry as they pick up the torch for the Olympics and World Cup.

Venezuela vs. USA

Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson scored 13 points a piece as the United States defeats Venezuela 80-45.

"I know that's out there," said Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins. "I don't really try to think about it in terms of how much we're beating people by or stuff like that. I think more about the tradition of how we do things. It's doing things the right way, doing things as classy as possible and represent our country that way. That's what we're expected to do. It's not about blowing guys out by 30."

"I don't know what the other guys do," said Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler. "But to tell you the truth, I don't think about the history of Team USA at all. I handle what I can handle. I don't try to do too much comparing, because when you compare, almost always you'll come up short. So I think we should just focus in on us and what we bring to the table and how we can win. We're not like those former teams. We're so different. That's OK. Different is always good. That's what I was told."

Nobody's gonna remember the score as long as we come along with the gold. But yeah, living up to the reputation is always in the back of your head.

– Klay Thompson, on the challenges facing Team USA

But while the grind of the annual NBA playoffs is about simply finding a way to win the next game and the next game and just advance, there is a public perception that the Americans are supposed to dominate, even in a basketball world where the talent gap has narrowed considerably. Rightly or wrongly, the 1992 Dream Team still casts a shadow.

"That was then and this is now," said USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo, who along with Krzyzewski pulled the program out of the ditch following Athens. "The reality is that was a once-in-a-lifetime type circumstance with a Hall of Fame coach and some of the greatest players in the history of the game all together on the same team and the world competition was nowhere near what it became. So the combination of all those things created this monster, if you will.

"There would always be a comparison drawn going forward for subsequent teams and the reality is we actually went downhill after '92 to the point where there had to be a revamping of the whole situation and I think our teams in '08 and 12 — the Olympic teams — were really good teams. Who is to say by comparison who is better?

"It's really difficult to compare people. But even the '92 team, the names were the names. But the ages of those players, there were some really old guys. Bird was 35. (John) Stockton was hurt. There were four or five of them that would have difficulty getting up and down the floor.

"I felt that this year, if everyone (LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook) had played, it would have been an incredible team. But that's the way it goes.

"The reality is this: it's a testament to the depth and quality of the players we have in the United States that we've used a lot of different people in our competitions. In '06 we fielded a team, in '08 half of them turned over. In '10 we had 12 new players in the World Championships in Istanbul. In '12 it was six and six. In '14 it was similar. But there has to be this motivation for the other players coming up through the pipeline that they have a chance to make it. That's healthy for our program. To me all the 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds who are all winning (age group) gold medals and aspire to be on the senior team, that's healthy. The pipeline is full. There's going to be continual flow and there's gonna be more and more great players."

An Inspiring Visit

When Mike Krzyzewski took over as head coach of the US National team a decade ago, he began instilling the idea of "selfless service" -- and nothing drove home that point more than an inspirational visit from Army Major Scotty Smiley, who lost his sight during battle in Iraq. Now, 10 years later, Major Smiley returned to spend time with the US Olympic team, and a new generation of players - plus a few veterans -- got to hear his story first-hand.

Durant, who will be under a new level of scrutiny when he joins the Warriors next season, shrugs off the greater than great expectations.

"You can look at it in a way that nobody cares how you win as long as you win," he said. "That's the name of the game for us. We just want to win. We know that when we played in 2012 we beat Lithuania by five points. It was a tight game all the way to the end. The gold medal game we won by eight or nine points against Spain (107-100). It's not like we're blowing every team out. But if you win nobody remembers the score. We want to win. We want to play well. We don't want to play the score, just play a good brand of basketball."

Yet many of the fans back in the North America and all around the globe will want to see domination or they'll think something is wrong. When Team USA beat Venezuela 80-45 in a tuneup game Friday night in Chicago, they shot just 42 percent from the field and were told it was an off-night.

It's the burden to carry.

"That's OK," Colangelo said. "You want to play? You want to compete at this level? It is what it is. In '08 we were climbing to get back and we did. So what happens when you get to the top of the hill? You're a target again and it just continues to exacerbate itself, I guess.

"Hey, it's a good problem to have."

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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