ISTANBUL (AP) — Kobe Bryant towers over a city street as he dribbles a basketball in the cover photo of a pamphlet distributed earlier this year to promote the world championships.
After offseason knee surgery, Bryant isn’t doing much dribbling at all this summer.
Even before announcing he was leaving Cleveland for South Beach, it was obvious LeBron James wouldn’t be going to Turkey.
Nor did any other players who helped the United States win the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics. In their place is what’s been called the “B Team,” a group of second choices who are here only because the guys with bigger names had better things to do.
And they’re aware of what’s being said about them.
“We love to compete. We’re professionals,” forward Lamar Odom said. “One of the best things about playing sports is being competitive. When someone says you can’t, it makes you more motivated.”
Now the B Team will try to do what the A-listers couldn’t four years ago: win the world’s biggest basketball tournament.
The Americans dominate the Olympics but can’t seem to get the world championships right. They’ve won the tournament just three times, none since 1994, and left Japan in 2006 with a bronze medal despite a team that was loaded with stars such as James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony.
The team that remains may still be good enough to be considered the favorite, but is vulnerable enough to make this event more wide open than the Olympics two years ago.
Spain and Greece, who met in the championship game in 2006, plus Argentina head the list of other contenders for the Naismith trophy and the automatic berth into the 2012 Olympics in London.
The tournament starts Saturday in four cities in Turkey. Group A is in Kayseri, Group B in Istanbul, Group C in the capital city of Ankara, where the hosts will play, and Group D in Izmir. Six teams are in each group, and four will survive pool play to advance to the single-elimination round starting Sept. 4 in Istanbul.
The championship game is scheduled for Sept. 12, and the Americans expect to be playing in it for the first time in 16 years.
“We just want to go out there and win,” forward Andre Iguodala said. “I think we’re really hungry and we’re really excited to have the opportunity to play for the USA and we want to bring back home the gold.”
So does Spain, a veteran team that returns much of its core as it goes for a repeat. Greece, which stunned the U.S. four years ago in the semifinals, has a deep collection of physical players — and will need to rely on it after Antonis Fotsis and Sofoklis Schortsanitis were each suspended two games by FIBA on Thursday for their part in last week’s brawl in an exhibition game against Serbia.
The Americans beat both the Spaniards and Greeks on the road in warm-up games, sending them to Turkey with confidence soaring after some struggles in their first two outings.
“We passed the other tests and now we are just ready to get into it,” forward Rudy Gay said.
But there are still concerns for a team with a lack of size and experience. The 6-foot-10 Odom is now the starting center on a squad with only one 7-footer and with six players age 22 or younger.
Chauncey Billups, the veteran of the team at 33, was asked what still concerned the coaches the most.
“More than anything, I think it’s still rebounding the ball and going at a high level,” Billups said. “Still knowing that we are a small team, rebounding, and sometimes we get a little wacky and turn the ball over a little too much. Those are our main two concerns. But those are the things that we can get a little better control of after playing more and more together, knowing each other more.”
The U.S. isn’t the only team that arrived in Turkey without its best players. Pau Gasol, the MVP of the 2006 tournament, is resting after three straight trips to the NBA finals with the Los Angeles Lakers. Argentina is missing Manu Ginobili, who stayed home with newborn twins. Theo Papaloukas, the point guard who quarterbacked the upset over the Americans, is no longer suiting up for the Greeks.
Even non-contenders such as Germany (Dirk Nowitzki), France (Tony Parker) and Australia (Andrew Bogut) are without top NBA players this summer.
The Americans seem best equipped to handle the withdrawals, fielding the most athletic squad in the 24-team tournament. They will look to overcome any size disadvantage with their pressure defense, trying to create turnovers that get Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose out on fast breaks.
Teams that can control the pace and get the ball inside can hurt the Americans. Greece managed it for a half Wednesday before the Americans ran away in the second of their 87-59 victory. Argentina, with Luis Scola and Fabricio Oberto, and Group B opponent Brazil, with Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter, have front lines that will be tough for the U.S. to match.
But if the Americans are able to get out and run, they’re confident they won’t stop until they’ve reached the gold medal platform.
“From top to bottom everybody can play and score the ball and I think we’re really defending well,” guard Stephen Curry said. “We have our leaders, our go-to guys with K.D. and Derrick Rose, those kinds of guys who are definitely getting us going out of the gate. Then the backup lineup coming in and not missing a step. I think we have everything covered.”
© 2010 by STATS LLC and Associated Press.
Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited.