"For us it's win gold or don't come back. It's tough. They might revoke our citizenship."
-- Kobe Bryant, addressing journalists July 18 in Manchester, England.
The first sentence conveys the sober mindset of the 2012 U.S. Olympic men's basketball team, and perhaps the darkest thoughts of the lunatic fringe.
The second sentence is a small, inadvertent joke.
The third is Kobe toying with a group of reporters. After all, the members of the forgettable 2004 team remain U.S. citizens.
But Bryant's comments address the task facing Team USA. The roster is stacked with the world's greatest talent, as is every team America sends into international competition. The U.S. is the prohibitive favorite to win the gold medal, as is every U.S. international team. Men's hoops -- and, yes, the same can be said of women's hoops -- is one area where the U.S. is assured of dominating in London.
But the mandate of the men's team goes beyond meeting the high expectations typical of all great teams. To be considered a success, this team must emphatically validate victory already presumed.
The perception is Team USA not only should win but win easily, making each game an authoritative statement of unfairness. Like, say, 12 men hunting birds in a cage.
That's where the pressure comes in.
Team USA's greatest challenge comes not from the opponents it will face during the games, or the unusual schedule or the atypical
The greatest challenge is meeting the standard of history -- and doing it on the 20th anniversary of the greatest basketball talent ever to fill an earthly roster.
The original Dream Team, led by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan and David Robinson, won games by an average of 44 points. Its members own more rings than a Las Vegas jewelry store. Three of the four coaches and all 11 of the NBA players are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Though all but one team since then won the gold, they also fail in comparison.
The 1996 squad was terrific, taking the gold with an average margin of victory of 31.7 points, but the 2000 club was considered only semi-dominant. It won gold with an average win margin of 21.6 points, but there was disappointment because two wins were by less than double digits, including 85-83 over Lithuania in the medal round.
The '04 team is perceived as a national embarrassment for boorish behavior, going 5-3 and finishing third. Never has bronze medal caused so much domestic consternation. Nor had any NBA-inclusive squad gone to work with the toxic mix of head coach Larry Brown micromanaging gifted youngsters LeBron James (19) and Carmelo Anthony (20), with a couple "leaders" named Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury.
USA Basketball's response in the wake of that fiasco: Never again.
The folks in charge of national teams regrouped under managing director Jerry Colangelo, who in 2005 persuaded Krzyzewski to become head coach not only for the 2006 world championships but for as long as both considered the relationship successful.
Team USA since '05 is 52-1, with the only loss to Greece in the '06 World Championship semifinal round, resulting in another bronze.
The "Redeem Team" sailed through the '08 Beijing Olympics, shooting 55 percent, with only one of eight opponents (Spain in the 118-107 final) coming within 20 points.
Order was restored, and there is no indication it won't remain so. The '12 team, even without Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade, has someone in every necessary role.
Bryant, the only member over 30, is the sage leader. James is the unstoppable force. The point guards, Deron Williams and Chris Paul, are stable and dynamic. Lethal scorers Kevin Durant and Anthony pose problems no opponent can begin to solve.
Yet Team USA will dominate and amaze with defense, the aspect of the NBA game most often criticized by purists. Andre Iguodala and Russell Westbrook are relentless, and centers Tyson Chandler and Anthony Davis -- an interior upgrade over the injured Blake Griffin -- can control the paint.
This team ultimately will be measured not by the five opponents on the floor but by its five predecessors. Coach K's group is up to the challenge.
Yet there is something sad in realizing the court of public opinion will be so harsh. Close games, those not decided before halftime, will be met with harsh judgment.
So, gentlemen, go get those gold medals. No pressure. But forget what Vince Lombardi said about winning being the only thing. In this instance, with this history, winning is the least you can do.