INDIANAPOLIS, Aug. 28 (UPI) -- The World Basketball Championships come to the United States for the first time Thursday with the rest of the planet hoping for another first -- a loss by NBA players in international competition.
The absence of true superstars on Team USA and the growing influence of foreign players in the NBA has created the possibility for an enormous upset.
Yugoslavia and perhaps Argentina are given the best chance of toppling the Americans and will try to do so with multiple NBA players on their rosters.
The Americans will have 12 NBA players on their team. However, they are a long way from being the 12 best players.
"Everyone is sort of down on this team a little," said Indiana Pacers forward Jermaine O'Neal. "You can't understand, as a player, why people are down on the team that we have. We have league leaders in scoring, league leaders in rebounding, blocked shots, assists, steals.
"Still, everybody is treating us like we're the JV team. We have to go out and play well to shut up the critics."
Guided by Milwaukee Bucks coach George Karl, Team USA has to do more than play well. It has to win, preferably by a lot. NBA players have never lost a game in international competition, although there were two close calls at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
"There's a lot of pressure to it but it's also a great honor," Karl said.
Karl does not believe that is such a bad thing. He said he would much rather have players who wanted to be here rather than those who viewed it as a chore.
"I'm actually surprised a lot of people don't want to play," he said. "For me, if USA Basketball called me five years in a row, I'd probably go five years in a row. Maybe after the sixth year I might take a summer off. This isn't that hard."
But it is not getting any easier, either. While many of the top NBA players skip these events, the rest of the world longs for the opportunity to play against the world's best.
"It shows that the world of basketball is expanding," Dallas Mavericks guard Michael Finley said. "It's not just an American game, it has an overall international flavor. Teams are getting better and hopefully we can become a world sport, so to speak."
The United States has been using NBA players in international competition since the 1992 Olympics, when the original "Dream Team" showed how much distance there really was between America and the rest of the basketball world.
In the decade since, the globalization of the game -- primarily promoted by the NBA itself -- has closed the gap. But how much?
America still has not lost with NBA players, going 32-0 in four international events. This group is well aware of the hallmark of perfection that has been established.
"When you step on the floor, you do feel the weight of that USA on your chest and the weight and pressure on your shoulders," Toronto Raptors center Antonio Davis said.
Yugoslavia and France came close to beating Team USA in the 2000 Olympics. That American squad was nowhere near the best the NBA had to offer, but it was the best of the tournament, as is this one.
Pierce, a swingman for the Boston Celtics, led the league in points scored last season. Wallace, a center for the Detroit Pistons, led in rebounding and blocked shots and was named Defensive Player of the Year. Miller, a point guard for the Los Angeles Clippers, led in assists.
They are joined by O'Neal, Finley, Davis, Clippers forward Elton Brand, New Orleans guard Baron Davis, Dallas forward Raef LaFrentz, Phoenix forward Shawn Marion, Indiana guard Reggie Miller and Chicago guard Jay Williams.
The Americans are in Pool C, where they are joined by perhaps the two most intriguing players in the tournament.
One is China's Yao Ming, the 7-5 giant selected No. 1 in the draft by the Houston Rockets. The other is Germany's Dirk Nowitzki, an All-Star with Dallas who may be the top player in the tournament, an unofficial honor usually reserved for an American.
"There's no question (Yao is) a danger factor around the basket," Karl said. "You have to respect his size and length."
Team USA handled both China and Germany in exhibitions last week. It opens Thursday night against Algeria, the sacrificial lamb of the group.
"We have to be more consistent offensively and take better care of the ball," Finley said. "If we do that, we will be real, real hard to beat."
In the preliminary round, there should be plenty of attention paid to Pool A, which features Yugoslavia, Spain, Canada and Angola.
Yugoslavia has five NBA players on its squad, including All-Stars Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac of Sacramento. They are joined by center Vladimir Radmanovic and forward Predrag Drobnjak of Seattle and rookie guard Marko Jaric of the Clippers.
Spain features NBA Rookie of the Year Pau Gasol of Memphis and Washington rookie guard Juan Carlos Navarro. Its chances would have been even better had Utah guard Raul Lopez not suffered a recent injury.
Canada's hopes took a heavy hit when All-Star guard Steve Nash of Dallas withdrew due to an insurance issue raised by owner Mark Cuban. The Canadians already were without NBA big men Todd MacCulloch and Jamaal Magloire.
Yugoslavia plays Spain Friday.
Argentina is the best team in Pool D, which also has Russia, New Zealand and Venezuela. The Argentines have a pair of former NBA players in center Ruben Wolkowyski and guard Pepe Sanchez and two current ones in guard Emanuel Ginobili and forward Luis Scola of San Antonio.
Turkey, which features Sacramento swingman Hedo Turkoglu, is joined in Pool B by Brazil, Puerto Rico and Lebanon.
Teams play each opponent in their pool, with the top three in each pool advancing to the second round. They form two groups of six teams, with each team playing three new foes.
The tournament should become very competitive thereafter as the top four teams from each group advance to the quarterfinals on Sept. 5. The semifinals will be played Sept. 7 and the medal games are Sept. 8.
Yugoslavia is the defending champion, having beaten Russia in the 1998 title game in Athens for its fourth gold medal.
That year, the threat of a boycott by NBA players forced USA Basketball to select a team comprised primarily of Americans playing in Europe. The squad went 7-2 with both losses by two points, earning the bronze medal.