NBA Players Try For Chance On Team USA

The U.S. men's basketball team is getting ready for the World Championship in Turkey later this month. While Team USA doesn't have the star power of past "dream teams," it has quite a few exciting players. And they're showing their stuff in New York this week.

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The United States used to dominate world basketball, but that is no longer a given. So the Americans will be hoping to assert themselves when basketball's World Championships begin in a few weeks in Turkey. U.S.A. basketball has assembled 15 NBA All-Stars, and almost All-Stars, and a dozen of them will make the cut. The players have been training in New York, and NPR's Mike Pesca's been with them.

MIKE PESCA: Even before play has started, the U.S. basketball team has tallied more rejections than any team in the world. They were rejected by Carlos Boozer, Brook Lopez, David Lee, and everyone who decided to take their talents to South Beach.

To be fair, that list of All-Stars all had their reasons. Mike D'Antoni, a Team USA assistant, details some of the more usual excuses.

Mr. MIKE D'ANTONI (Team USA Assistant): Some of the guys just, you know, because it's so long - the NBA season - they get banged up so much that it's hard to just keep going summer after summer. So (unintelligible) a lot of them are free agents. So there's a lot of different reasons. Everybody has their reasons.

PESCA: D'Antoni, who is the also the head coach of the New York Knicks, says he encourages his players to participate in international basketball. But this year his best player, Amar'e Stoudemire, was kept off Team U.S.A. An insurance underwriter refused to allow the $100 million power forward with bulky knees to play for anyone other than the Knicks. But Nuggets guard Chauncey Billups rebuffed the naysayers.

Mr. CHAUNCEY BILLUPS (Denver Nuggets Guard): You know, its funny, everybody always saying why are you doing this - you know I'm saying? And my thing is why not. You know what I mean? You've got a chance, man, to represent my country, doing something that I've been doing since I was nine, 10 years old. I don't care who's not playing. I've never been a follower. You know what I'm saying? I do what I do.

PESCA: So the roster of USA basketball contains some bona fide superstars.

Unidentified Man: From the Oklahoma City Thunder, number five, Kevin Durant.

PESCA: And a few players who had trouble cracking the starting lineups of their own NBA teams.

Unidentified Man: From the Washington Wizards, number 11, JaVale McGee.

PESCA: When the last three cuts are made, Team USA will consist of a dozen players who are mostly among the top hundred in the world, but only Durant is in the top five.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski has an interesting assortment of smallish young players -emphasis on young. Seven of the 15 players still in contention to make the team were born in 1988. That means they were three or four when the Dream Team played in the Olympics. But Lamar Odom, along with Billups, one of the team's elder statesmen, says the players all share an outlook.

Mr. LAMAR ODOM (NBA Player): You know, I'm 30. And some of these guys are 21, 22, 23, really come from the same culture, which is the hip-hop culture. We love the same music, the same clothes, the same style. You know, all these guys are basketball historians, so they know what the first Dream Team was.

PESCA: If this whole NBA player married to a Kardashian thing doesn't work out, maybe Lamar Odom should go into anthropology or marketing, because last night Team USA took to Radio City Music Hall to kick off the Nike-sponsored World Basketball Festival.

A marching band, break dancers, steppers and a DJ all urged the crowd to make some noise. The intrasquad scrimmage ended in a quite rare sudden death overtime. Tyson Chandler slammed home a rebound, and the players left the Radio City stage to make way for a concert by Jay-Z.

(Soundbite of cheering)

PESCA: After, Billups compared the experience to an All-Star game, but with players who were really trying.

Mr. BILLUPS: We've been going extremely hard in practice. We're trying to get something done. We're trying to play defense. Trying to play with a cause, as opposed to an All-Star game you're just trying to showcase.

PESCA: Team USA's next tune-up is on Saturday against the French national team in Madison Square Garden, the world's most famous arena, hosting some of the words best young players, some of whom most Americans may have even heard of.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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