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NBA stars have something to prove
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National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player Kobe Bryant, who sparked the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA Finals, smiled when asked about his summer plans following the playoffs.

Mindful of teammate Pau Gasol and his role in leading Spain to the world championship in 2006 at Japan, Bryant tossed down the challenge.

"One thing that's on my list is to stop Pau from winning a gold medal," Bryant said.

The American team of NBA stars will be trying to reclaim their position of global supremacy at the Beijing Olympics after a third-place showing at Athens behind defending champion Argentina and Italy.

"We're on a mission," USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said. "Our guys get it. They really do understand what's at stake here."

After losing only twice in Olympic history before the 1992 Olympic debut of an NBA "Dream Team", US stars suffered a nightmare three losses at Athens and were ousted by Greece in the 2006 Worlds semifinals.

"There has to be a goal, an objective above fixing the house of pain," said Colangelo. "Ultimately that results in that goal of winning a gold medal. We not only have a goal to win it. We want people to respect us."

Several top US players were late pull-outs before Athens, leaving a young US squad outmanned against more veteran sides that showed better teamwork.

That prompted USA Basketball to develop a three-year program with a core of players who have worked together over the past two years, first at the 2006 Worlds and last year at the Americas Olympic qualifying in Las Vegas.

"We've been very arrogant about the game and said it's our game. It's the world's game. It originated here," US coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

"The respect we've shown to international basketball over the past two years has shown dividends and we'll continue that respect and show the best we can be on the world stage. I love my guys. They will represent us well in Beijing."

The US squad will be challenged by world champion Spain, defending Olympic champion Argentina, Yao Ming-led host China, Australia, Lithuania, Russia, Angola, Iran and three teams from a qualifying event July 14-20 in Athens.

Greece, Germany, Croatia, Slovenia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, Cameroon, Puerto Rico, Cape Verde, Lebanon and South Korea will try to play their way to Beijing.

Yao, a 7-foot-5 (2.26m) center for the NBA's Houston Rockets, is likely to play despite suffering a stress fracture in his left foot and missing the last two months of this past NBA season following surgery.

The risk of injuries at the Olympics worries NBA clubs.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have forbidden center Zydrunas Ilgauskas to play for Lithuania at Beijing, citing a poor health history that includes foot injuries that sidelined him for full seasons.

"Zydrunas is an important member of our team and has generally been a higher-risk player," Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry said. "In light of the inability to ensure Zydrunas adequately, we will not permit Zydrunas to play in the Olympics."

Manu Ginobili, the San Antonio Spurs playmaker who sparked Argentina to 2004 Olympic gold, suffered a sprained right ankle in the NBA playoffs and will be examined in July with the team fearful he could do more damage at Beijing.

US women have something to prove as well after they lost a semifinal to Russia at the World Championships and Australia won the title.

"We did lose in the World Championships but we haven't lost in the Olympics and we're going back to defend our gold," US star Lisa Leslie said.

Americans have won five of the past six Olympic crowns, including the past three in a row since settling for bronze in 1992, and are 42-3 in the Olympics.

US coach Anne Donovan sees rivals adopting the fast-paced US style.

"Russia and Australia have changed their style to be competitive with us, an up-tempo style but also physical. American players are the best in the world at that style so I think if our players come together we'll be fine," she said.

(China Daily June 27, 2008)

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