USA Basketball Team Preps for Japan Games Robert Siegel talks to Wall Street Journal sportswriter Stefan Fatsis about next month's basketball world championships in Japan. The USA men's team finished a disappointing third in the 2004 Olympics. But it looks to make a comeback this year.
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USA Basketball Team Preps for Japan Games

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USA Basketball Team Preps for Japan Games

USA Basketball Team Preps for Japan Games

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In one of the biggest shocks of the 2004 Olympics, the United States Men's Basketball Team, stocked with NBA stars, finished in third place. Two years before that, the U.S. came in sixth at the World Championships. Well, that tournament begins again next month in Japan. And this time, Team USA insists that things will be different.

Wall Street Journal sports reporter Stefan Fatsis joins us now, as he does most Fridays. Welcome back, Stefan.

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (The Wall Street Journal): Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: Those two performances, pretty humiliating for American basketball, especially at the Olympics, where the U.S. lost three games en route to its bronze medal. Has the world caught up with us in terms of talent? And what's changed, if so, for the U.S.?

Mr. FATSIS: Well, it's absolutely caught up. I saw all those games in Athens and they were not flukes. The U.S. was out-shot, it was out-hustled, it was outsmarted. And the message couldn't have been more clear. The world has caught up in terms of talent.

They played better team basketball, they know how to take advantage of different rules and refereeing styles in international competition. What is a foul? What isn't a foul? Whether traveling will be called. That sort of thing. So it did require a major change.

SIEGEL: A big change, also, the kind of coach they've sought for Team USA this time, a college coach.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah. Mike Krzyzewski from Duke. He will be coaching these millionaires, but he's a millionaire too. And the message to players is that this isn't the NBA. You need to treat international play with urgency, like the NCAA tournament, maybe, instead of the slog of the NBA regular season.

One of Krzyzewski's key assistants is going to be Mike D'Antoni, the coach of the Phoenix Suns. And he coached for years in Europe, so he knows the international style of play. And there's a real focus now on the fact that international play is different. There's more teamwork. And players have to learn that or they won't play in these world championships or in the Olympics.

SIEGEL: So what does the U.S. roster look like for the world championships?

Mr. FATSIS: Well, the main difference here is that the U.S. has picked 25 players. They're intended to stay intact through the 2008 Olympics. This was a big difference from in the past where you would just sort of pick a handful of players a couple of months before an event. If somebody got hurt or dropped out, they had to scramble to replace them at the last minute.

These guys want to be on the team and if they expressed any doubts, they weren't selected for the team. And it's an interesting roster. They're practicing in Las Vegas this week, they're going to head to Asia in early August. You're not going to see many NBA big guys on there. Shaquille O'Neal is not on this team. There's just one seven-footer, Brad Miller of the Sacramento Kings.

And that's a concession to the fact that international play is faster and its team oriented. Also, it's interesting to note, there were only four players who will be 30 this calendar year. It shows that this is a long-term effort. They want these players to stick around.

It's not an all-star team the way the Dream Team in the 1990s was, but it's not devoid of stars either. Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, Elton Brand. These are great players.

SIEGEL: Maybe a little - you're saying - a little more team, a little less dream this time around?

Mr. FATSIS: I think that is the approach. They want this to be a long-term process that ensures that players know how to play with each other and not just by themselves.

SIEGEL: Let's talk a little bit about who some of the other powers are out there in the world of basketball. Argentina, a good team always.

Mr. FATSIS: Argentina, the defending - yeah - the defending Olympic champion.

SIEGEL: China.

Mr. FATSIS: Yao Ming. And that team rapidly wants to improve. They want a medal when they host the Olympics in 2008.

SIEGEL: And some less expected teams are taking part in the field this year. Senegal, Angola, Turkey - they play a lot of basketball there - and Lebanon.

Mr. FATSIS: Yep. Lebanon. They're coached by an American named Paul Coughter. He's coached internationally for more than a quarter of a century. Lebanon finished second to China in qualifying from the Asia region for these world championships. But of course, these players have more on their minds now.

Of course, there was a story out of Beirut yesterday that said the team had been stranded in Lebanon for five days after the outbreak of fighting with Israel. Then it left by bus over the northern border and was driving to Jordan to resume training in Amman.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Stefan.

Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis of the Wall Street Journal, who talks with us on Fridays about sports and also the business of sports.

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