For the first time since Barcelona, there's real buzz surrounding Olympic men's basketball.
A big reason for the anticipation: the expected full-flowering of the American side -- the so-called "Redeem Team" -- after three years under the czarist leadership of U.S. men's national-team program managing director JerryColangelo. Uncle Jerry will brook no excuses that invoke a lack of (take your pick) prep time, role players, humility, Kobe Bryant.
But as someone who sat in a near-empty RCA Dome at the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis -- and was more appalled by the indifference of the Hoosier homefolks than by the sorry performance of sixth-place Team USA -- I'm most juiced about the prospect of seeing a full and (by relatively demure Chinese standards) rocking Beijing Olympic Basketball Gymnasium.
The hosts may be a long shot for a medal, but Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian will give the Chinese a chance. Iran will be there, representing the Americans' diplomatic nemesis and providing an electric storyline.
Meanwhile, the international federation, FIBA, has done its part, choosing to fill out the draw by staging a single worldwide qualifying tournament. This has delivered a deep, European-flavored field: Last-minute Olympic entries from the qualifier, which concluded in Athens on July 20, are Croatia (always a rugged, sure-shooting side); Germany (with Dirk Nowitzki and the mercenary ChrisKaman); and Greece (the last team to beat the U.S. men -- at the '06 Worlds in Japan).
Basketball is the Western sport most thoroughly integrated into the lives of the Chinese, who can claim more NBA fans than the U.S. counts citizens. "In China, Yao's jersey is only fifth or sixth in sales," Colangelo says -- his point being that the Chinese will show up to see a broad constellation of NBA stars they know, and not just the ones on the U.S. team.
Indeed, no one will regard the Redeem Team with paralyzing awe. The 21st century isn't even a decade old, and already collections of the finest U.S. pros have lost to Argentina, Italy, Lithuania, Puerto Rico, Serbia and Spain, as well as the Greeks -- the latter a team without a single NBA player.
Men's hoops is the toughest ticket at these Games. But in contrast to 1992, lucky fans with ducats will be witnesses to a competition, not an exhibition.
We're now four Olympiads removed from Barcelona, and the very thing that NBA commissioner David Stern and FIBA secretary general Borislav Stankovic vowed would happen if only the Games were opened up to the pros has indeed happened: On any given Olympic day, virtually anybody could beat anybody.