LONDON — LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and David Robinson are part of an exclusive Olympic club that may never have another member.
They’re the only USA men’s basketball players to compete in three Olympics — and with a potential age-limit rule change looming, maybe the last ones.
“We’re very humbled from the simple fact that we’ve been selected once again, but we don’t take it for granted,” said James, who said he wasn’t aware of the rare threepeat until someone told him. “This is a very select group of guys who get this opportunity every four years and for us to be a part of it for three consecutive teams is an unbelievable feat.”
A feat that seemed unlikely after James’ and Anthony’s first experience.
The Olympics couldn’t end quickly enough for them in Athens.
James can hardly hide his disgust with his role, or lack thereof, whenever he is asked about 2004, a time when USA Basketball was, as Anthony says, “just trash.”
Now they refuse to let the Olympic experience stop.
The NBA All-Stars have gone from Olympic outcasts to longtime leaders whose commitment has helped get the Americans back on top and favorites to stay there.
Robinson, a Hall of Famer, followed up a bronze medal finish in 1988 by winning in 1992 and again in 1996.
If James and Anthony can follow the same pattern, it would be a remarkable finish to an ugly start.
“I’d have come full circle,” Anthony said. “Just the feeling of having that experience of being at the bottom of it all as far as USA Basketball goes in 2004 and then coming back to redeem ourselves in 2008, I had to come back. LeBron had to come back. We had to do it once again.
“Even right now, in London, that gold medal in ‘08 was sweet, but this one would be even better.”
James and Anthony were NBA rookies in 2004, playing for a coach who favors veterans. They still needed to grow as players and grow up as people, and they really didn’t belong in Athens in the first place.
But such was the state of USA Basketball that when numerous players pulled out and the Americans had no plan in a place to fill out the roster, they picked a pair of familiar names who didn’t yet have the games to match their popularity. James had been the NBA rookie of the year but was just 19. Anthony was 20, a year after leading Syracuse to the NCAA championship as a freshman.
The Americans lost three times in Athens while James and Anthony mostly sat and watched. Anthony in particular was viewed as the poster child for a team that was hated at home and abroad.
“That experience I’ve kind of forgotten about, honestly,” James said. “I was thrown in as an afterthought after my rookie year and I didn’t play much and we wasn’t a team. ... Ever since then, being a part of this and part of Team USA has been great for myself — and I know Melo feels the same.”
James has become a leader for the Americans, perhaps caring more about that role because leadership was so lacking on that ’04 disaster. Anthony has become a potent scorer and an even better teammate, willingly taking a sixth man role this year after starting every game he played from 2006-08.
“It’s great to see and, yeah, we owe them such a debt of gratitude for committing themselves to be part of this,” USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said. “And that’s the thing that touches me so, so much, that players have ... really committed to it because they liked it, felt comfortable, wanted to be a part of it. And those guys were right at the forefront, Carmelo, LeBron.”
The opportunity to play for the United States multiple times wasn’t available until NBA players were allowed to compete in the Olympics starting in 1992. Even so, most players either never considered or were considered for a second try, certainly not even giving thought to the idea of sacrificing a third summer.
Robinson, a Naval Academy graduate who had great appreciation for representing his country, was an obvious exception. Now with the experience James and Anthony have had, players such as Chris Paul may welcome the chance to keep competing.
“I think it still has a great feel to it,” Robinson said while watching a USA practice in Barcelona. “I grew up with the Olympics, so I always thought this was the best, there was no way I would not play in the Olympics. But I think these guys enjoy coming together. This is a tremendous experience for all of them. Looks like everybody’s having a lot of fun.
“I would guess, yeah, guys would want to do it as many times as they could.”
They may not have the chance.
NBA Commissioner David Stern has discussed limiting Olympic participation to players 23 and younger, a proposal that would have to be approved by FIBA, basketball’s governing body. Beyond preventing future threepeats, it would have blocked Anthony and James from making up for their Athens misery had it been in place, since they had already turned 24 before the Beijing Games.
Players oppose the idea, with James saying he’s against it “because I’m 27.”
He and Anthony know better than anyone that playing in the Olympics isn’t always for the young. They appreciated it more as they became more experienced, and now Anthony, criticized for some immature behavior eight years ago, is lauded by coach Mike Krzyzewski for being as committed as anyone to playing for his country.
“For me to get that call and be one of the 12 guys to represent the USA,” Anthony said, “you can’t ask for anything better than that.”