Here's a thought: What if USA Basketball doesn't win gold in China?
What if the Americans lose again at the Olympics?
Nothing. It took scientists four years to discover a vaccine for bird flu, and all they had to worry about was creating the remedy from a human strain of the virus. Try finding a subtle way to tell Allen Iverson not to shoot as much or Richard Jefferson not to shoot at all.
It took that forgettable showing in 2004 for the United States to realize how one best goes about building a team to oppose the world every four years. Now that it has, not even failure at the 2008 Games should cause the panic of being stuck in a broom closet with Yao Ming.
The U.S. did well to fall in line by following the lead of those countries that not only caught up along the highway of hoops supremacy but in a few instances accelerated past the Americans.
You remember Athens, right? The 5-3 record and hollow bronze medal and 19-point opening-round loss to Puerto Rico? The two shots from Jefferson off the side of the backboard? Things either had to change or the Americans one day would suffer the humiliation of an NBA star congratulating his peer from Serbia and Montenegro on a well-deserved victory.
So they have. The U.S. that plays Canada in an exhibition at the Thomas & Mack Center tonight is the guinea pig for a senior national team concept, for demanding that NBA players commit more time and effort to the pursuit of regaining the top spot on a medal platform, for challenging the pride of multimillionaires to place representing their country over two or three or more summers of lavish vacations.
This is the only sensible way today and tomorrow and beyond, because the time of forming a team once the NBA season concludes and breezing to a gold-medal finish ended when Juan Carlos Navarro (yikes) led Spain past the U.S. in the sixth-place game of the 2002 world championships.
"Having a (long-term) commitment from players seems the only way to go -- win, lose or draw," said Jerry Colangelo, the team's managing director. "We're focused on winning the gold (in China), but this is the infrastructure that should continue for a long time regardless. Keeping guys together. Keeping core players for more than one Olympics.
"I think it's an 'in thing' to wear a USA jersey now. A few years ago, people weren't looking to represent their country. We have changed that culture."
It should be enough to win in China, but anyone who believes the Americans won't be challenged at some point hasn't watched international basketball since Michael Jordan and the rest of his Dream Teamers were beating Angola by a thousand points.
There will be a game or perhaps two in which the U.S. can't make a shot and the other guys can't miss, in which you would swear the referee who speaks little English blows his whistle like Tim Donaghy, in which playing 40 minutes allows inferior individual skill the opportunity of beating NBA bodies conditioned to play 48 (see Greece 101, Team USA 95 in the 2006 world championship semifinals).
So say the unthinkable happens, that even a team with Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd and Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James and Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade falls short. You can't blow things up and go back to inviting college players, a move that would then label a sixth-place finish progress. You can't send the NBA champion, because there's a good chance some of its best players would be wearing the uniform of other nations.
This is it. It never will be to the level of commitment from other countries -- I'm fairly certain Manu Ginobili and his Argentine teammates gathered for their first practice following newborn portraits in the hospital nursery -- but convincing the NBA's best to surrender chunks of consecutive offseasons and forming a select team of future Olympians to practice against those headed to China is the best chance of avoiding having to again fake smiles when handed a bronze medal.
"Whether you call it a two-year or three-year or four-year plan or something else, you need to give adequate preparation time to have a chance at winning," Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "That's why I don't blame any of the players or coaches from 2004. They weren't given the proper preparation time. You have to get to know one another and the international game. It doesn't happen in a couple weeks."
What if they lose? Then they lose.
But any immediate result shouldn't change the long-term approach. You can't just knock out bird flu overnight.
Ed Graney can be reached at 702-383-4618 or firstname.lastname@example.org.