When it comes to worlds, Americans are hardly world beaters

Friday, August 18th 2006, 8:50 am
By: News On 6

SAPPORO, Japan (AP) _ Carmelo Anthony knows his job is to help restore the United States to world basketball prominence.

What he didn't realize is that when it comes to the world championships, the Americans haven't been all that prominent: three golds, three silvers, three bronze and five times shut out of a medal entirely.

``I'm surprised, just knowing the type of basketball players we have in America,'' Anthony said after practice Friday. ``To win the world championships only three times is kind of a surprise to me. So that's why we're here right now, to kind of redeem ourselves.''

The world championships have been played 14 times. The Americans' three titles are tied for second with the Soviet Union, two behind Yugoslavia.

Think the current 12-year gap without a world championship seems huge? The Americans once had a drought that was 20 years longer. They won the second worlds in 1954, then didn't land another title until 1986.

``I was surprised when I seen the stats. But, hey, the NBA players have only been playing this a couple of years now,'' Dwyane Wade said. ``I guess that's the difference.''

Not exactly. The Americans have used NBA players only twice, and the last time resulted in the worst U.S. finish in the worlds _ a sixth-place flop four years ago in Indianapolis.

But the problem hasn't always been bad basketball. Sometimes, the Americans were simply the victims of bad timing.

The defense of their 1954 title was delayed a year because the venue in Chile wasn't ready in time. The tournament was rescheduled for early 1959 _ in the midst of the basketball season in the United States. So the Americans ended up sending a group of Air Force volunteers _ tryouts were at Andrews Air Force Base _ who brought home a silver medal.

The Americans were the defending champs again in 1998 after rolling through the '94 event in their first try with NBA players. However, with a labor stoppage preventing the use of NBA players again, the U.S. was forced to field a patchwork collection of CBA or overseas players. That team, which included current team member Brad Miller, finished third.

U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski also came up short in his first try at the world championships. Coaching a team that included future NBA players Alonzo Mourning, Christian Laettner and Kenny Anderson, he led the Americans to a bronze medal in 1990 in Argentina.

Playing for a berth in the gold-medal game, the U.S. fell short against a Yugoslavia team that featured Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc and the late Drazen Petrovic. So Krzyzewski knows how hard it was for Americans to win this title.

``I'm not surprised, because so many years we sent collegiate players and we're playing men,'' Krzyzewski said. ``Our team was really young. We played against Yugoslavia when they had all their guys together. That was like playing against an NBA team. Same thing with Russia. So our guys did well, but they were just too young.''

Still, young U.S. teams won the Olympics for many years, long before NBA players started competing. The Americans won their first 63 games before its disputed loss to the Soviet Union in the 1972 gold-medal game and now have an Olympic record of 114-5.

The 97-26 mark entering these world championships seems paltry in comparison.

``Remember ... there are more teams in the world championships than there are in the Olympics,'' Krzyzewski said. ``Two totally different things, and I think the world has looked at the world championships as something maybe even bigger than the Olympics.

``Maybe they're equal now, but for the longest time winning the world championships was what you set out to do. With our country, setting out to win the Olympics was what we tried to do.''

The mind-set has changed now. With Anthony, Wade and LeBron James, this team could be stronger than the one the U.S. sent to the 2004 Olympics _ and certainly better than the ones that came up empty in so many previous world championships.

``Now I think everyone's on the same page,'' Krzyzewski said. ``They just want to win everything.''