By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"Ernie Kent" sounds like a superhero name, or at least the name of his alter ego. Which is fine, because his mannerisms and speech fit that mold. Kent--the University of Oregon basketball coach by day, USA junior world team coach by off-season--shoots across the court like the Flash and grabs the ball from one of his charges before anyone is really sure what's just happened.
"Freeze," he says. The only thing missing is the bubble above his head and maybe a whoosh! "OK, what could we have done better there?"
He is animated, but also cool and careful. Today the American Airlines Center hosts the first day of practice for the junior world team. The roster isn't set yet, and these players are mostly new to Kent's system, so he stops frequently to see who's picking things up and who isn't. He's looking for his boy(s) wonder, a serious player or two who can help restore the Americans to their rightful place atop international basketball. Maybe the Dream Teamers have lived up to expectations in the Olympics, but it's been a good long while since the juniors have done anything to wow a world audience. Actually, it's been 12 years; 1991 was the last time the juniors won a World Championship, which is a lot like the French going all that time without losing another war--sooner or later, you'd think history would get its act together and repeat itself.
As Kent starts to answer his own question--using basketball-speak that sounds about as complicated and bizarre to the layman as a lesson in chaos theory--one of his players speaks up and finishes his coach's thought.
"We need to split the lane there," Illinois guard Deron Williams interjects. "And set back picks."
The comment draws a quick, approving glance from Kent. Williams, who grew up in Dallas and attended The Colony High School, is a squatty little point guard who cuts up the opposition as much with his mental grasp of the game as his impressive handle. Along with another local product, Daniel Horton, a University of Michigan standout guard who played prep ball at Cedar Hill, Williams represents what USA basketball hopes will be a new order of young, homegrown hoopsters--physically talented but also fundamentally sound.
That's been the major knock on junior hoops over the past decade or so: These kids are supremely athletic; they're well-versed in dunking and the dribble drive, and making the highlight films are never a problem. But ask them to set a sound pick or make a back cut and suddenly they're useless. All the while, foreign players, particularly the Europeans, have established themselves as real-deal ballers--which explains why the last two Junior World Championships were won by Euros, not to mention the heavy influx of foreign-born players who have immigrated to the United States and infiltrated the NBA. As former Georgetown coach-turned-analyst John Thompson so eloquently noted in an interview on HBO's Real Sports,"The European is basketball's new black. They see basketball as their way to get over. Our kids better wake up."
"It's true. Those guys are very skilled," Horton says. His smile is omnipresent, he is congenial and considerate, he looks you in the eye and answers questions honestly. "They play a physical game, maybe more than we do now. They're able to knock down open shots--jumpers are their thing. They make smart basketball plays. They're intense. We have to match that intensity, and we have to be smart, too. I think that's what coach [Kent] is trying to teach us."
Williams and Horton, who played against each other in high school and who now battle in college (both just finished their freshmen seasons in the Big 10 Conference; Williams was only the third frosh since 1975 to lead the conference in assists, while Horton was named Freshman of the Year), are among 17 hopefuls here who would like nothing more than to learn that lesson and revitalize USA hoops. That number was whittled down from the 51 who were invited to try out for the squad at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Look at that again: 51 players to start, 17 right now, approximately 12 when camp breaks. Even with the criticism levied against American basketball, that's select company. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, both Williams and Horton figure to make the final roster--an honor even at a time when American patriotism is a polarized topic.
"Sure, you know, with everything going on in the world right now, people say things about our country, but I think that makes it even better to wear that 'USA' across our chest," Williams says. "I mean, look at some of the guys who have played on these teams, you know? It wasn't long ago that we were in high school here, and now we're representing our country. That's a big deal."
Indeed. And not just for the immediate gratification or attention. The list of their predecessors reads like an all-star ballot: Vince Carter, Stephon Marbury, Larry Johnson and so many others. It goes without saying, then, that somewhere in the back of their minds--or, more likely, in the front--is the understanding that excelling here, with USA Basketball, can go a long way toward pushing them into the NBA. Jingoism or no, you'd be hard-pressed to find a player whose first allegiance isn't to the world's best league.