The U.S. men will be walking a line no more than a few microns wide at the Beijing Olympics, where they're set to open play against China on Sunday.
On the one hand the Americans have had drummed into them, from their very first one-on-ones with U.S. National Team Managing Director Jerry Colangelo, that they're to be respectful of their opponents. After the debacle in Athens four years ago, and the loss to Greece, a team without a single NBA player, in the 2006 worlds, jingoistic references to "our game" have given way to acknowledgment that the sport's defending world champion is Spain, its reigning gold medalist is Argentina and no fewer than seven different nations (Argentina twice, Yugoslavia, Spain, Italy, Puerto Rico, Lithuania and Greece) have beaten up on the Americans since the Sydney Olympics.
On the other hand, coach MikeKrzyzewski's crew comprises the finest Americans the NBA can offer. After sailing through last summer's Americas qualifying and sweeping their five exhibition games in advance of these Games, they do not suffer from a self-esteem deficit. It's even harder to be humble when you're treated as Team USA has been since arriving in China. Fans in Shanghai chanted "MVP!" at Kobe Bryant during the team's exhibition defeat of Russia on Aug. 3, and a half-dozen foreign reporters asked LeBron James for his autograph between questions at a Friday news conference.
So it's no surprise that James would slip off-message. Asked by Time two weeks ago if he could guarantee that the U.S. men would win their first major gold since 2000, he replied, "Absolutely."
"I asked a question," says Sean Gregory, the reporter who popped the question that drew that dissonant response. "He played along."
After which teammate Dwyane Wade rushed to chime in his assent: "We all feel we're going to win, so what's the difference with him saying [it]? You're supposed to feel you're going to win every game. ... [If] that's what our vision is, that's what we're thinking, then say it."
Nowhere was heard a discouraging word. Or almost nowhere: "We want to be careful about providing bulletin-board material," said Jason Kidd, which is what you'd expect from the team's senior statesman. And who, it should be noted, is now 49-0 in a Team USA uniform.
"Yeah, he said it," Colangelo said today of King James' royal decree. "I don't have a problem with it. If anything, I hope that at the end of this competition we did what we said we'd do."
Or as assistant coach Nate McMillan put it: "We feel we've got the best players in the world. But we can't talk it anymore. We've got to show it."
As the Redeem Team minces along that finest of fine lines, we'll be posting an intermittent Humility Watch in this space, to monitor such things as talk vs. walk. We'll also keep tabs on body language, and unflappability in the face of those dodgy international refs and FIBA rules.
With the U.S. women set to tip off tomorrow against the Czech Republic, to get us started here's a Humility Watch (Women's Edition):
"We're really excited about our opportunity to continue our dominance of the world."-- Lisa Leslie, the four-time Olympian and member of the U.S. national team, on Thursday.
Gold: U.S. Silver: Spain. Bronze: Argentina.