USA Basketball’s gold medal formula: Big stars, bigger centers

USA Basketball’s gold medal formula: Big stars, bigger centers

LAS VEGAS — LeBron James called Stephen Curry last fall with a simple proposition: Let’s go to France together.

The basketball megastars had known each other since James, then 23, made a point to watch Curry, who had just turned 20, play for Davidson in the 2008 NCAA tournament. From 2015 to 2018, their friendship turned into a healthy rivalry as James’s Cleveland Cavaliers and Curry’s Golden State Warriors became the first teams in NBA history to face off in four consecutive Finals. Though both had represented the United States at major international tournaments, they were never on the same team unless it was an NBA All-Star Game.

What’s more, James had won Olympic gold with Kevin Durant, and Curry had teamed with the 35-year-old Phoenix Suns star to win a pair of championships with the Warriors. The 2024 Paris Olympics, the trio realized, was an opportunity to join forces for the first time and put their many Finals battles behind them.

“I’m looking forward to being off the floor with Steph and being able to enjoy those moments,” the 39-year-old James said Sunday as he participated in USA Basketball’s four-day Olympic training camp. “… The game of basketball doesn’t last forever. You don’t want to have a relationship f—ed up by [the media making it out to be] ‘LeBron versus Steph — they should never smile, and they should hate each other.’ As much as me and KD have gone head-to-head and me and Steph have gone head-to-head, I’m able to not listen to the false narratives.”

James, the Los Angeles Lakers star who hadn’t played internationally since 2012, said he first checked with his wife, Savannah, who gave her blessing for the summer abroad. Curry was lured by the chance to win his first Olympic gold medal and to play for Steve Kerr, his coach with the Warriors. Durant didn’t need any convincing: After he led the Americans’ triumph at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, victory in Paris would make him the first men’s basketball player to win four Olympic golds.

“He’s almost 40 years old, and he’s still playing at an elite level,” Durant said of James. “That’s inspiring to me. … I know it’s important to a lot of people [to] be the only man to do [something historic]. That stuff never really moved me. The journey is what’s cool to me.”

With those three committed, soon enough USA Basketball had compiled one of the deepest and most accomplished rosters in its illustrious history. Four players have been the NBA MVP. Four have been named Finals MVP. Seven have won NBA titles. All 12 have earned all-star nods. And then there are Kerr and assistants Erik Spoelstra and Tyronn Lue, who have combined to coach seven NBA championship teams since 2012.

The Americans will bring an embarrassment of riches to Paris as they seek their fifth consecutive gold medal. After completing training camp Tuesday, Kerr’s team will play five exhibitions before its Olympic opener against Serbia on July 28. The first tuneup is Wednesday against Canada at T-Mobile Arena.

To win gold Aug. 10, the Americans must advance out of a four-team group and then win three consecutive games in the knockout round. France, Canada and Serbia are among the medal contenders in the 12-team field, but the Americans are the overwhelming favorites.

“Do you see this team?” Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo exclaimed. “The rest of the world is trying to catch up, but if you put a team like this together and we play the right way, it’s going to be hard to beat us.”

The buzz around the team is at its highest point since Kobe Bryant, James and Durant won gold at the 2012 London Olympics. Hundreds of fans have lurked at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino, screaming in delight when Curry and Durant have worked their way through USA Basketball’s makeshift headquarters. Autograph hounds braved 117-degree heat on the final day of camp, and upper-bowl tickets for Wednesday’s exhibition were being listed for more than $500 on resale sites. Vice President Harris even made a cameo at Tuesday’s practice, shaking hands with James and posing for photographs with Curry.

“It’s a really cool vibe,” Curry said. “I had first-practice jitters, and I’m sure I’ll have it for the first game. There’s a surrealness of who is on this team and all the battles we’ve had over the course of our careers. … I’m enjoying every minute of it.”

Facing ever-present gold-or-bust expectations, Grant Hill, USA Basketball’s managing director, and Kerr sought substance to complement the superstar sizzle. At the Tokyo Olympics and the 2023 FIBA World Cup, the Americans fielded versatile but undersized teams that occasionally looked overmatched.

The Americans lost to France in their opener in Tokyo before winning a rematch in the gold medal game. At the World Cup, the heavily favored Americans suffered losses to Lithuania, Germany and Canada while finishing a disappointing fourth.

When Kerr brought this team together, he screened video from the World Cup losses to help explain what had to change. A survey of this year’s competition only reinforced the need to add frontcourt reinforcements. France will deploy Victor Wembanyama, the unanimous rookie of the year, and Rudy Gobert, the defensive player of the year, in an imposing combination. Serbia is expected to be led by three-time MVP center Nikola Jokic, and Greece boasts two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

To prepare for those matchups, USA Basketball recruited Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, who also was eligible to play for France and Cameroon. Embiid, the 2023 MVP, will team with Anthony Davis and Adebayo to form an excellent interior rotation. Given that all of them are comfortable on the perimeter, Kerr will be able to deploy supersized lineups with two of the three playing together.

“It’s hard to bully me,” Embiid said. “It’s hard to bully [Davis and Adebayo]. I’m just excited to get the ball in the post and have Steph, KD and LeBron cutting.”

The Americans have excellent size across the board. Kerr can deploy the 6-foot-9 James as a point forward when he wants to ramp up the pressure, and Durant will be joined on the wings by Kawhi Leonard and Jayson Tatum, who have excellent length and physicality. Jrue Holiday makes for a sturdy complement to Curry and pass-first point guard Tyrese Haliburton in the backcourt, while Anthony Edwards and Devin Booker round out the roster as scoring guards who can space the court.

James joked that USA Basketball has assembled “the greatest AAU team of all time,” but Kerr is bracing for “an enormous challenge.” He made it clear that he and Curry “won’t be playing 36 holes of golf on game days,” as Coach Chuck Daly and Michael Jordan famously did as the Dream Team waltzed through the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

In a reminder that unforeseen challenges can surface, Durant suffered a minor calf injury that sidelined him for training camp and will keep him out of Wednesday’s exhibition. Still, the Americans will journey to Paris with high hopes and immense faith in their headliners.

“We’ve got LeBron, KD and Steph,” Edwards said. “I don’t feel like nobody can beat those three by themselves on the court. You mix in two of us regular guys, and we’ll be all right.”

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