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Kobe Bryant: The 1992 Dream Team days are over

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Kobe Bryant said the U.S. men’s basketball team faces a huge challenge and dismissed any excuse of the top NBA superstars passing on the World Cup, noting that the 2008 Redeem Team had a tough final against Spain.

“It’s not a matter of the rest of the world catching up to the U.S.,” Bryant said between semifinals at the FIBA World Cup, where the U.S. lost in the quarterfinals and in the consolation round for its worst-ever tournament result. “The rest of the world has been caught up for quite some time. It’s to the point where us in the U.S. are going to win some, going to lose some. There’s just great basketball being played. Whether it’s Redeem [team] two, no matter what team it is, it’s not going to be easy.”

As for just two 2019 NBA All-Stars and one player with Olympic experience suiting up for Team USA this summer?

“I hear that a lot – did we send the best possible team that could come out here?” Bryant said. “The Redeem Team, we needed a hell of a fourth quarter to beat Spain. … Put the best players that you think are going to make the best U.S. team out on the floor – it’s still not going to be a cake walk. The days of 1992 are over.”

Bryant and the Redeem Team beat Spain 118-107 in the Beijing Olympic final, though the lead was as small as two in the fourth quarter.

The Redeem Team was a product of a USA Basketball overhaul following defeats at the 2002 World Championship and 2004 Olympics. With Mike Krzyzewski at the helm, the U.S. lost at the 2006 World Championship, taking bronze, before reeling off five straight titles between the Olympics and worlds from 2008 through 2016.

A key for the Redeem Team was the braintrust of USA Basketball making it a three-year commitment to be a member of that Beijing 2008 team (though Bryant missed 2006 Worlds due to knee surgery). By 2008, Bryant said he valued Olympic gold more than an NBA title.

Krzyzewski stepped down after Rio, where the U.S. had a pair of three-point wins after some NBA superstars decided not to play. Gregg Popovich, an assistant on those 2002 and 2004 teams that lost, succeeded him for this Olympic cycle.

Of this year’s dropouts, Bryant said, “Some of those guys haven’t had the opportunity to play for the United States, so I’m sure if their health allowed them to, they certainly would’ve been over here playing,” according to ESPN. “But a lot of those guys are coming off of serious injuries and trying to figure out how to navigate through that to get healthy again and back to 100 percent. Other guys are moving, moving to different cities and getting their families to settle in. It’s a big adjustment for families, so I certainly understand it.”

NBC Olympics senior researcher Rachel Thompson contributed to this report from China.

MORE: FIBA World Cup schedule, results

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Tommy Ford ends U.S. men’s World Cup drought at Beaver Creek

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Tommy Ford earned his first World Cup win at age 30 and ended the U.S. men’s longest victory and podium droughts in two decades.

Ford won the giant slalom in Beaver Creek, Colo., on Sunday, the last North American race on tour this season. He prevailed by eight tenths of a second combining times over two runs.

Norwegians Henrik Kristoffersen and Leif Kristian Nestvold-Haugen were second and third. American Ted Ligety, fourth after the opening run, finished 11th.

Full results are here.

Ford became the first U.S. man to win a World Cup since Travis Ganong took a downhill on Jan. 27, 2017. He also became the first U.S. male podium finisher since Ligety in January 2018. Both were the longest droughts for the program since the late 1990s.

Ford, a 2010 and 2018 Olympian who missed the 2014 Olympics due to a broken femur, had been working toward this moment.

He finished a World Cup career-high fourth at the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 27. Last season, the Oregon native and former Dartmouth student had a pair of fifths.

The men’s World Cup moves to Val d’Isere, France, next weekend for a giant slalom and slalom.

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Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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