Carolina on their minds

U.S. Olympic basketball team has Tar Heel feel

Posted: Friday, July 30, 2004

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. Red, white and Carolina blue.

The coaches on the U.S. Olympic team certainly have that look.

Larry Brown, former player and assistant at North Carolina, is the head coach. Roy Williams, former assistant and current head coach of the Tar Heels, is Brown's assistant. And paying a visit to the team's pre-Olympic training camp this week is the biggest Tar Heel of them all, Dean Smith.

Smith has no official role on the coaching staff. But anyone who thinks he's in Jacksonville just for show should think again.

''Everything I've been taught comes from something he taught us,'' said Brown, 63, arguably the most accomplished active basketball coach in the world these days.

All the defensive calls Brown makes this summer, as the American team heads to Athens, will be the same ones Smith used over his 36 years at North Carolina.

The work ethic. The discipline. The fundamentals. Even in an era of pampered, high-priced players, Brown has managed to stay true and keep his players true to many of the basic tenets of the game, most of which he learned from Smith.

Earlier this summer, Brown led the underdog Detroit Pistons to the NBA title, and in doing so, became the first coach to win it all in both college and the NBA. Now, he's seeking to add Olympic gold to his haul.

Melding this collection of 12 NBA stars, however, might be among the biggest challenges he has faced in his four decades of coaching, especially considering he's got limited time to do it. This week is the first time this group has been together. After an exhibition game Saturday against Puerto Rico, the team heads to Europe for a few more weeks of practice. Then, it's Athens, where the United States opens play Aug. 15.

''When I coached, we had six weeks to be together and put everything together,'' Smith said. ''It's a lot different now.''

Smith was coach of the U.S. Olympic team in 1976, back in the day when professionals weren't allowed to play, and when the bulk of college talent was centralized in a handful of locations. One of them, of course, was North Carolina, and that helps explain why four of Smith's Tar Heels Walter Davis, Phil Ford, Mitch Kupchak and Tom LaGarde were on the team that won gold in Montreal.

The win back then only served to strengthen Smith's resume. He was 15 years into a career that ended with 11 Final Four appearances and two national championships.

''I know that everything I've learned in basketball, 90 percent of it comes from him,'' said Williams, who was Smith's assistant before he left to coach Kansas. ''His impact on the game is still huge.''

In typical fashion, the 73-year-old former coach of the Tar Heels doesn't talk up his role. But there's a reason he's here this week huddling with the coaches, chatting with players, sitting with Brown at the scorer's table during a scrimmage Thursday to help evaluate this forming team.

''I don't know if I still have an influence or not,'' Smith said. ''I'm not too sure about that.''

Pretty much everyone else is. Even the Duke guys. On a different day, in a different setting, former Blue Devil Carlos Boozer would have been trained not to like Smith, Brown, Williams or anything else that comes packaged in Carolina blue. This summer, though, they're all working toward the same goal.

''It's an honor to be in his presence,'' Boozer said. ''Never mind the Duke-UNC thing, because he's one of the greatest of all time, and I'd like to learn as much as I can from him.''

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