LONDON -- You don't have to stretch the imagination all that far to create a scenario in which Tyson Chandler becomes the most important member of the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team. Not the best or most talented or most talked about or most likely to meet the queen, but the most important, the one player this team can least afford to lose.
Because Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh are hurt, and Tim Duncan and Amare Stoudemire are old and worn out, the United States has one real Big Man: Chandler. OK, the Americans have Anthony Davis, who'll one day relatively soon be an All-Star and a big whoop-de-doo, but right now, he's not even an NBA rookie. He hasn't been to one day of a pro training camp and is 13 months removed from high school playing against some mashers.
So, Tyson Chandler is the American Big Man.
Let's not dwell on the U.S. team's 98-71 thrashing of France on Sunday; while it has Tony Parker and a handful of other current NBA players, the French team isn't what it was a few years ago when Joakim Noah and Mickael Pietrus were cornerstones. France, in this competition, was never going to be a threat to the United States. The Olympics, in the context of who can beat the U.S., is a one-game tournament. Spain is the only viable threat in the field. If you're a real dreamer, I suppose you could conjure up some cockamamie scenario in which Argentina scores an upset, but it's fantasy.
Spain has a real ballclub with real Big Men, three of 'em: Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Chandler can't afford foul trouble or turning an ankle between now and then. The U.S. coaches, paranoid as they're supposed to be, live in fear, specifically about Chandler's propensity to get into foul trouble. In the team's last exhibition game against Spain in Barcelona, Chandler fouled out in eight minutes; that's right -- eight minutes. It's one of the reasons U.S. head coach Mike Krzyzewski is all over Kevin Love to become a better player around the basket.
For a man who never expected to be an Olympian, Chandler is under a whole lot of pressure; but the great thing about him, and one of the reasons he has become such a valuable player (a starter on the Mavericks' 2011 NBA championship team), is he understands exactly what his team needs him to do and plays to that.
"The reason I'm here," Chandler said earlier this week, "is to be aggressive on defense and to be aggressive attacking the glass. But I have to stay on the floor. If I commit a foul, it has to be one that counts. I can't have silly ones."
On the eve of the Olympics, Chandler was rather obsessed with officiating -- not whining about it, but figuring out how the international game is called, whether he could get away with hand-checking and by how much. It's not something Chandler (or most folks who watch professional basketball closely) thought he would have to worry about. He has never been an All-Star, doesn't score much (11 points per game with the Knicks in 2012) and doesn't do anything glamorous enough to project "Olympian" on any level, and he knows it.
"I never thought it would be possible, the way my career was going," Chandler said. "In 2007, [Team USA Basketball chairman] Jerry Colangelo called. I know where I was when I got the call. I was at the dentist's office. He asked if I wanted to try out for the team and I jumped out of the chair
"Like every kid watching the Dream Team [Chandler was 9 years old when the U.S. sent its first team of pros to the Games, in 1992], I went out and picked up a basketball afterward. I was inspired," he said. "But those were the top 12 players in the world at the time well, in history. But after the 2004 Games [when a U.S. team comprised of NBA players lost in the Olympics], it was clear that international teams from the U.S. couldn't just get caught up in putting stars on the floor. You had to have guys who could fulfill specific roles, guys who were willing to form a team I don't feel like an All-Star at all. I feel like a big kid who's lucky and blessed and capitalized on opportunities in his life."
Chandler isn't overstating his penchant for maximizing. He and Eddy Curry went from high school to the NBA in the summer of 2001. Both went to the Chicago Bulls and both were traded away. Chandler went on to win a title with the Mavericks and became the starting center on a Knicks team with serious aspirations, while Curry has played in a grand total of 24 games over the past four seasons. Chandler has become one of the league's favorite examples of a great teammate, while Curry has suffered through one injury after another to become, sadly, the object of derision.
Colangelo knew this when he called Chandler.
"To a man, everybody who played with Tyson thinks he's a great teammate," Colangelo said. "He's got a great attitude, work ethic and a certain set of skills. He may not be the prototype 'big man,' but what he brings is very important. He sets picks, he blocks shots, runs the floor. There aren't a lot of big guys in our country right now, college or pro. I'll take speed and athleticism over size for size's sake."
Against France on Sunday, it hardly mattered. The U.S. team handed out 27 assists on 31 baskets and cruised, literally, to a tournament-opening victory. Chandler played only 10 minutes and Coach K was able to get the young Davis eight minutes of playing time. But the team swears it doesn't expect it to be this easy in every game.
Asked whether Chandler is under an inordinate amount of pressure, teammate Deron Williams said, "Remember, in the last go-round [2008 Beijing Games], the only true center we had was Dwight. Chris [Bosh] played there a lot and he's not a [center]. Booze [Carlos Boozer] played there. Size comes in handy, but I'm fine playing with quick, athletic guys who know how to play. We can also throw Anthony out there here and there."
But mostly, the U.S. team is going to depend on Chandler, whose calmness and accountability are nearly as big as his shot-blocking and rebounding.
"It's always a dream to represent your country," he said.
What Chandler couldn't have envisioned was having his country, and a U.S. team that carries the greatest expectations in every single Olympics, come to depend on him so heavily.