After years of struggling with chemistry issues, the U.S. is finding success with a roster of superstars who also happen to be old friends
IN 1992 they were kids inspired by the Dream Team. Two decades later they have grown up to become leaders of a golden era for international basketball. Pau Gasol and Juan-Carlos Navarro of Spain, Andrei Kirilenko of Russia, Tony Parker of France, Marcelinho Huertas of Brazil, and Manu Ginóbili and Luis Scola of Argentina are all medal contenders in the deepest Olympic tournament since Larry, Magic and Michael sowed the planet for their sport. "What a talented world," says Spurs assistant Brett Brown, the Maine native who is Australia's head coach. "What a good world."
Those players grew up dreaming of the day when they might beat the country that once motivated them. They believed devoutly that teamwork could prevail over the individual talents of the U.S. In 2004 the American stars were upset in the semifinals by Argentina, and even as they won their first four preliminary games in London, there were signs of vulnerability. Last Saturday the U.S. trailed Lithuania 84--82 in the final six minutes before LeBron James, Chris Paul and Deron Williams rescued a 99--94 win.
That performance renewed the hopes of challengers such as Spain and Russia, who had reason to believe they held the fundamental advantage of teamwork. The Spanish, in particular, have been playing together since they were teenaged cadets. During these Olympics they continued their traditions of dining together and playing hands of pocha, a card game, late into the night, while on the court they performed as if the years had taught them to read one another's minds. "It would be no miracle on ice," says Brown of the prospect of Spain's knocking off the U.S. "That is not at all the parallel. These guys are ripe. They have all the pieces, they have the age, they've played together: It's the holy grail of international basketball."
But the Americans have made it clear that while they, too, were influenced by the '92 Dream Team, they've also taken a lesson or two from the issues that tripped up some of their country's less successful squads.
THE NARROW lobby of the hotel that housed the U.S. men's and women's teams in the Mayfair area of London is arranged with brown leather chairs around beige marble columns a yard thick. It is dimmed by sepia lighting and brimming with American accents.
"You were great last night," said Geno Auriemma, coach of the U.S. women's team, as he walked down the hallway last Friday morning alongside men's coach, Mike Krzyzewski.
"Yeah," said Krzyzewski, smiling ironically after his team made a preposterous 29 of 46 threes during a 156--73 win over Nigeria. "Every play I drew up worked."
In a corner of the lobby sat Paul, the 27-year-old Clippers point guard. No NBA star has more high-ranking friendships. Paul is his league's unelected mayor: a person who maintains eye contact, who handshake by handshake makes acquaintances feel like close personal friends. As Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love passed by on their way to breakfast before an 11 a.m. team meeting, each turned and waved with a grin. "All these guys," said Paul, "we've known each other for a long time."
Paul's friendship with LeBron James began when they were 14-year-olds playing in AAU. "When I was in college [at Wake Forest], I would go out there to Cleveland because we talked all the time," said Paul. "He came to a couple of my games. And our families got real close, so now my wife and his fiancée may be closer than me and him."
Durant was a camper at the Five-Star Camp where Paul worked as a counselor; their parents would become friends too. Paul's best friend at Wake Forest was Justin Gray, who had been Carmelo Anthony's roommate at Oak Hill Academy. Andre Iguodala came to Winston-Salem, N.C., to appear at a bowling event for Paul's charity in 2005. Paul met James Harden at the 2009 All-Star Game in Phoenix while Harden was starring at Arizona State, and their rapport grew from there.
Had they been raised, say, 20 years earlier, Paul and his London teammates wouldn't have been nearly as tight. When Larry, Magic and Michael were coming up, young players knew little of their rivals across the country. But that changed when the massive profits generated by the NBA during the heyday of the original Dream Teamers began to trickle down to create a new market for teenage basketball stars. James was on the cover of SI as a 17-year-old. Paul, Anthony, Durant and others were widely known in basketball circles while they were in high school. They were held up to scrutiny and expectations that Larry, Magic and Michael never knew as youngsters, so they leaned on one another and created a support system.
"That's what makes our friendships so unique and genuine," said Paul. "These are a lot of my closest friends that I've grown up with, who are like family to me. I can talk to them about things that I can't talk to my brother or my parents or my wife about. So it's great to have that advice from somebody who's been through it."
Their relationships have raised questions about their willingness to compete against each other. "Commentators talk about it all the time—'I can't believe these guys are friends, they go to dinner.' My thing is that it is a different time, a different day and age," said Paul. "There are so many camps now. Kids start playing USA Basketball when they're 15 years old, traveling and playing against other countries. So you have no choice but to be friends with the guys. You see guys every other weekend for six years before you even get to college. You have to know where to draw the line."
The ultimate example is Paul's friendship with Williams, against whom he competes annually for the unofficial title of best NBA point guard. "Everybody always is trying to make us sworn enemies, but when we ..., " Paul said, stopping mid-sentence. "Speak of the devil!" he said, nodding across the lobby where Williams peeked out from behind one of the thick columns. He faced Paul with an unabashed smile and wave, as if they were high schoolers in biology class.
"We push each other—we do," Paul continued. So how is Paul able to put aside their rivalry? "Because he's a great guy that has four kids, four of the cutest kids I've probably seen in my life," said Paul. "When we were in college, we worked the Nike All-American camps together."
That growing sense of fraternity made it feel natural for James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to decide to play together for the Heat in 2010. (The Big Three would have been reunited on the U.S. team last week if not for injuries to Wade and Bosh.) If that controversial decision to unite in Miami represented the downside to the new generation, then the upside was on display in London.
When they were losing to Lithuania in the fourth quarter, when their shots weren't falling and when their defense was being blistered by the pick-and-roll, the American players didn't withdraw from one another. "No finger-pointing—it was really positive," says Krzyzewski. "I really learned something about them."
THE U.S. lost in the quarterfinals of the 2002 world championships and in the semis at the '04 Olympics with dysfunctional teams of All-Stars. In '05, USA Basketball asked Jerry Colangelo to take over as chairman of the men's team. Krzyzewski's inexperience in the NBA was viewed by some as a weakness, but Colangelo hired the Duke coach because he viewed his impartiality as a strength. And so the players don't worry about NBA gamesmanship or ulterior motives when dealing with Krzyzewski or with Colangelo, a former owner of the Suns who sold the franchise in '04. "This team has terrific camaraderie," says Colangelo. "It's a big, big difference from '04 to '12."
The often destructive issues of the NBA—including money—have relatively little influence on this U.S. team. The players receive no salary from USA Basketball and are participating by choice. They receive calls and messages year-round from Krzyzewski and Colangelo without fear of tampering. It is a team built upon relationships and trust.
"You really do need to be friends in order to play well," says Durant. "If you don't like a person on the court, I don't think it really works. So the good thing about this team is that we all like each other, we all respect each other and we've been knowing each other on a personal level for more than two or three weeks. That's where the chemistry comes from."
Lithuania's near upset suggested that the U.S. could yet be conquered in the medal round by a cohesive challenger. Russia, which was 4--1 as of Monday, has modernized its program under fiery Boston-born coach David Blatt. And the Spanish, despite blowing a 20--2 lead in a 77--74 loss to Russia, remained a potential matchup nightmare. While the Americans have only one true center, Tyson Chandler, the Spanish have Pau and his brother Marc Gasol, both All-Star 7-footers in the NBA.
As the Olympic tournament approached the knockout stage, on Aug. 8, there was a chance the Americans could grow frustrated and bicker, as even the closest families do. Ultimately, however, their togetherness gave them an advantage that no previous U.S. basketball team has known. They share the larger goal of a second straight gold medal, and the sense that this is their time.
This 2012 team is compared incessantly with the original Dream Team. In 1992 no one imagined that so many charismatic rivals could join together. Their success inspired the best players the world over, and the results are visible in Russia and in Miami and in the London hotel where the biggest American stars were greeting one another as lifelong friends. The dream has given way to what is now, in the truest sense, a team.
"These are a lot of my closest friends that I've grown up with," says Paul.
For daily coverage of the U.S. men's and women's teams, by Ian Thomsen and Kelli Anderson, go to SI.com/olympics
Photograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
Return Trips The Americans have benefited from experience: Kobe Bryant (10) and Chandler are two of 10 players in London who won gold at either the 2008 Olympics or the '10 worlds.
Photograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
The Social Networker When he's not shaking hands and making pals, Paul is directing an offense that averaged 115.8 points in its first four wins, including an Olympic-record 156 against Nigeria.
Photograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
They're All Connected The Americans' fast start was truly a team effort: All 12 players averaged more than 11 minutes in the first four games, and only three—Durant, Paul and James—are playing more than 20.
JOHN BIEVER (BOTTOM)