BEIJING — Has there ever been a greater home-court advantage in basketball history?

I don’t think so. China’s 1.3 billion people and a very tall fellow named Yao Ming, who earns a paycheck playing for the NBA’s Houston Rockets made that possible.

On the other hand, the U.S. men’s basketball team had never faced bigger pressure than it did on Sunday night in China’s capital city.

Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant dished out a few choice words about the magnitude of this much-hyped preliminary round Group B game, which tipped off at 10:15 p.m. in China.

“It will be the highest-energy game I’ve ever been part of,” Bryant said at a Saturday news conference. “We don’t want people to have the wrong impression, that we are selfish and can’t play team basketball. We have to change the way people look at us.”

Kobe’s right. And this change has become a long-term project for Team USA’s managing director Jerry Colangelo, the former owner of the Phoenix Suns, and head coach Mike Kyzyzewski, who also coaches the Duke University men’s powerhouse. The team is aptly dubbed the “Redeem Team.”

For too long, the U.S. basketball squad acted as if it would be the preordained dynasty until the end of time. Its chief characteristic arrogance didn’t help matters, and made the team far from likable for the masses.

You’re probably familiar with the story line: The last time Team USA, which was first dubbed the “Dream Team” in 1992 when NBA All-Stars Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley donned the national uniform in Barcelona, Spain, won a gold medal of any significance was at the 2000 Sydney Games.

Since then, the tale has been a pretty consistent one. Team USA has stumbled time after time — and forced to learn the concept of humility — at the 2002 FIBA World Basketball Championship in Indianapolis, the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2006 World Championship in Japan.

Eight years is an incredibly long time in sports, nearly as long as most professional playing careers.

Remember this: Yao Ming was not a household name eight years ago. Now the 229-cm gentle giant is as recognizable as Muhammad Ali ever was, arguably a little more.

For Yao, Sunday’s showdown with Team USA represented the second unforgettable day in his life in the same weekend. Carrying the Chinese flag into National Stadium on Friday night was his first colossal task of the Olympics. (And you thought you had big plans over the weekend! Try topping Yao’s. It won’t be easy, friends.)

By the way, this next sentence is straight out of a Hoops 101 manual: China was the underdog for its first Olympic game, but that fact couldn’t stop Yao and his teammates from exerting themselves to the maximum.

“In terms of techniques, we are indeed not of the same weight level with the U.S.,” Yao told reporters, looking ahead to the biggest game of his career “But we won’t give up the chance. It isn’t so easy to compete with a team composed of the best basketball players in the world. (The experience) is a very precious treasure in life.”

Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade had a similar outlook the day before the game.

“I think this is great for the game of basketball around the world,” said Wade, who helped the Heat win the 2006 NBA title. “It’s going to be great. We can’t wait to be a part of it, to be a part of probably the most watched basketball game in history.”

Team USA has unmatched talent, and its 12 current NBA players — Bryant and Wade, as well as guards Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Michael Redd, Deron Williams, forwards Tayshaun Prince, Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and center Dwight Howard — will provide mismatch problems for any team in the world. Then stick these tidbits your memory bank: James is the planet’s top all-around player and Team USA is 49-0 (exhibition games included) over the years with Kidd in the lineup.

But the sport of basketball has evolved tremendously in the past decade, and upsets should be expected.

Case in point: 42 current and former NBA players, including China’s Yi Jianlian, a forward/center for the New Jersey Nets, are listed on the rosters of the 12 teams in the Olympic tournament.

“It shows that basketball is getting bigger all over the world,” said Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki, an All-Star forward for the Dallas Mavericks. “Basketball used to be a smaller sport, but now everybody plays it. The NBA has fans all over the world. It’s becoming a global game.”

It’s the notion of many basketball analysts that this tournament is Team USA’s to lose. Fair enough, but Group B teams Greece and Spain, the reigning world champion, and Group A teams Argentina, the 2004 Olympics champion, and Lithuania also have the potential to claim the gold medal. And Germany, Croatia and Russia have to be considered dark horses to vie for a medal, too.

OK, now let’s take two steps back and contemplate the reality of what occurred late Sunday night and into Monday morning. I think this headline gives the historical event the proper perspective: “Game vs. U.S. puts China in Hoops Heaven,” The Washington Post declared on Sunday.

Sunday night’s final basketball game in Beijing was just the beginning.

For two weeks, fans will see the dynamic improvements in the game on a global scale.

The 2006 World Championships provided similar drama, but on a smaller scale. Angola, ravaged by civil war from 1975-2002, fielded a respectable, talented squad at in Japan. It qualified for the Round of 16, winning the hearts of countless admirers from around the world and playing a spirited, entertaining brand of basketball.

Two years later, Angola is one of 12 nations that earned a chance to compete in the world’s best international basketball tournament.

This star-studded competition also provided this delightful appetizer: the China and the United States playing a game that instantly became one of the most significant sporting events of all time, for the players, for the fans and for the future hoops stars of China who yearn to become the next Yao Ming or Yi Jianlian.

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