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Again the best, U.S. hoops needs its best to stay

The 2008 Olympic celebrations were barely under way and Jerry Colangelo was already thinking about work.
Olympics Day 16 - Basketball
Gold medalist Kobe Bryant of the United States smiles during the medal ceremony after defeating Spain in the gold medal game in Beijing.Streeter Lecka / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

The 2008 Olympic celebrations were barely under way and Jerry Colangelo was already thinking about work.

“They forgot this was a six-year commitment,” USA Basketball’s managing director said at the press conference following the U.S. Olympic team’s 118-107 victory against Spain on Sunday in the gold-medal game.

Colangelo was joking, but he raises serious questions.

How many of the best players on this team will be back for the 2012 Olympics and does USA Basketball continue to require a three-year commitment from them?

These players have served the time Colangelo required of them for the 2008 Games and are now free to enjoy their summers.

But if the United States wants to stay on top after fighting so hard to get back there, Colangelo — or whomever replaces him — better hope some players are serious about playing again and willing to make another long-term commitment.

The Americans can no longer afford to send anyone but their best and expect to win.

A team with Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and a number of other NBA superstars who had been together for three years was barely enough to get it done in the gold-medal game against a Spain team that won’t be going away. Put injured point guard Jose Calderon back on the court, and give young phenom Ricky Rubio a little more experience, and the Spanish have to feel good about their chances to defend their world championship in two years.

The Americans were unchallenged in their first two competitions with NBA players, starting with the Dream Team in 1992. But by 2000, that dominance was gone, with the U.S. barely hanging on for a two-point victory over Lithuania in the semifinals of the Sydney Games. It was lost for good early in the decade, when the Americans lost three times on home soil in the 2002 worlds and three more times two years later in Athens.

Those teams that lost were filled with second- and third-choices, after numerous players pulled out or simply declined the invitation to put on the USA jerseys. The group of players Colangelo selected gave their word and never thought about ditching their commitments.

“I think this right here will be contagious and it will rub off on a lot of people,” point guard Chris Paul said. “I think guys will see how much fun we had and be like, ’Man I want to be a part of that.”’

Paul has already said he’ll be in London in 2012 if asked. So did Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer. Carmelo Anthony, who played in Athens, said he would be open to considering a third Olympics.

“We’re going to talk about the future going forward,” Colangelo said. “But the good news is this ... unsolicited, five or six of these guys have already said they want to be part of what we do going forward. But, we have plenty of time to sort through it. They need some time off. They really do.”

The Americans earned that break in 2009, with their gold medal here giving them an automatic berth into the 2010 world championships in Turkey. That gives them time to sort through a number of questions.

The first decision probably comes from Colangelo, who won’t say yet if he will stay in the position he used to create the national team structure that USA Basketball never had. He said he has some wishes, but hasn’t given any hints as to what those will be.

And what about the three-year commitment, do you curtail that?

After that comes the coach, and the Americans proved how important that was when George Karl and Larry Brown couldn’t get along with their players in 2002 and ’04. Mike Krzyzewski would surely get to stay if he wanted, but at 61 and having already served on 11 USA coaching staffs, he may be ready to pass the reigns onto someone else.

Then will come decisions on the players. Colangelo’s roster already includes more than 20 other players beyond those who were here, including young stars such as Kevin Durant and Greg Oden, so the U.S. seems set for the future.

If those star-caliber players keep suiting up, count on the Americans always being the favorite to win gold. If they stop, the rest of the world will catch right up again — maybe not by 2012, but quite possibly by 2016.

Luckily for the Americans, the problem of finding guys who want to play seems to be gone.

“I think we’ve had so much fun together,” Bosh said. “This has been an incredible experience from the day we had our first meeting. So I think we’re all just going to get together one day and see what’s next.”