The Malibu Times’ sports correspondent Dick Dornan was in Las Vegas last week as Team USA basketball prepared for London.
By Dick Dornan / Special to The Malibu Times
As the elevator descended down from the 57th floor of the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, it made a brief stop at floor 29. With my head slightly tilted down expecting to see another tourist walk in, the doors opened and in came a figure of mythical proportions.
Quicker than you can say, “Oh my God,” my head snapped up as I stood in the presence of the Miami Heat’s LeBron James, this year’s NBA Most Valuable Player and NBA Finals MVP.
Wearing a short-sleeved gray shirt with “USA” emblazoned across his chest, James was headed to his first day of practice in preparation of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
At six-feet-eight, 250 pounds and chiseled like a Greek God, James dwarfed this sportswriter who had the privilege of working for the media relations department for USA Basketball during the week-long training camp on the campus of the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
I too had the honor of working for USA Basketball and the original “Dream Team” at UC San Diego in 1992 with legendary players such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. I was there the infamous (and until recently, little-known) day when a select team of college players shocked that very same Dream Team with a 62-54 victory in their first scrimmage, a loss that ultimately gave them the fuel to wreak havoc on their opposition at the Olympic Games in Barcelona.
What would happen 20 years later? Would I be privy again to see something special right before my eyes?
Well, there wasn’t any earthshaking news, unless you consider Blake Griffin’s two ridiculous dunks after a practice that instantly shook up the social media world. Otherwise, training camp at the Mendenhall Center ran like a well-oiled machine with many of the world’s greatest players showcasing their skills under the watchful eyes of coach Mike Krzyzewski, his staff and USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo.
The first two days featured 15 players competing for 12 spots on the roster. From the moment the team gathered and yelled “USA” as they broke their first huddle, it was all business. The process of building a cohesive unit had begun.
On a whiteboard placed along the baseline, Team USA was split into two groups. Blue consisted of NBA all-stars Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Tyson Chandler, Andre Iguodala and Eric Gordon. The white group had Deron Williams, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Rudy Gay, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis.
Krzyzewski spent the first hour reviewing the defensive philosophy while also installing inbounds, sideline out of bounds and offensive sets utilizing the athleticism and versatility of the team.
Friendships and personal pride set aside, the players competed with passion. The quickness, speed and athleticism were remarkable to witness up close. From the diligent ball handling of Chris Paul, to the aging yet still graceful ability of Kobe Bryant, to the smooth shooting stroke of Kevin Durant, to the explosiveness of Russell Westbrook and to the sheer power and strength of James, Team USA displayed its arsenal of weapons whether they went five on zero or against the select team of other NBA players.
“We are looking for multiple positions, no ‘one’ through ‘four,’” Krzyzewski said after the first day of training camp, referring to the numbers traditionally associated with the point guard and power forward positions. “You have guys who need to have the ball and who you want to have the ball such as LeBron, Kobe and Kevin Durant. We are trying to put in a system where we have guys who can play multiple spots on the floor.”
Bryant, who stirred up controversy during the week by stating that this year’s Team USA could beat the Dream Team, enjoyed what he saw after the first two practices.
“We have a lot of depth. We have a great deal of versatility, speed and agility,” Bryant explained. “One of the biggest strengths for USA Basketball is guys growing up and being able to do everything. Being able to handle the ball, shoot the ball, post up. We have so many athletes that can really cover the floor. We have to take advantage of that.”
At the selection show hosted by NBA TV, the roster of 12 players was announced. Anthony Davis, Rudy Gay and Eric Gordon did not make the cut.
However, six days later Blake Griffin left the team due to a knee injury and Davis, the number one pick in this year’s NBA draft, replaced him prior to the USA’s dominant 113-59 exhibition victory versus the Dominican Republic.
After watching each practice, press conference, photo shoot and spending time with the team at breakfast every morning, I was able to witness first-hand the camaraderie and respect the players had for each other. Krzyzewski welcomed all egos but with a team-first attitude. Anything else was unacceptable for USA Basketball and our country.
“This is a great group,” Krzyzewski said as camp concluded. “We are not a team yet but hopefully by the time we get to London we will be a team.”
“It’s the best team you will likely ever play for,” Paul added.
As I begin my fifth season as Associate Head Coach at John F. Kennedy High School in Granada Hills and my 18th year overall as a basketball coach, I can truly say I was in basketball heaven for one week.
While Malibu offers the beauty of sun and surf, Las Vegas was home to the beginning of Team USA’s quest for the Olympic gold medal. On August 12, hopefully it will become official.