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Team USA becoming favorites _ on and off the floor

Aug. 11, 2008, 5:49 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING - China is the host of these Olympics.

The U.S. is becoming the home team.

That was apparent on Sunday night, when the U.S. drew huge ovations even as it schooled Yao Ming and his less-talented teammates in a 101-70 rout of China. Off the court, the Americans have been mobbed by autograph seekers everywhere they go.

"Sometimes we think we're bigger in China than we are in the United States," U.S. guard Chris Paul said.

Four years after being scorned in Athens, Team USA is bent on shedding the ugly American image, and the Chinese are buying it. A combination of the NBA's popularity here and the Americans' star power have fostered warm feelings among the players and the fans.

Call it slam dunk diplomacy.

"We're just perceived different now," said Dwyane Wade, a member of the 2004 Olympic bronze medal squad. "In Athens, we weren't a favorite at all."

It would be easy to blame former coach Larry Brown and the players on the 2004 team - Stephon Marbury, Allen Iverson and company - for the Americans' poor image in Athens.

But the change of venue might be as much a factor as the changed roster. China is fertile ground for the NBA, whose investments in the vast market include a Chinese-language version of its Website.

Yao Ming drew the Chinese to the NBA. Once fans here were exposed to the product, they adopted stars such as Wade, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

"I think Yao has a lot to do with that," Bryant said. "He was the one that kind of built the bridge from China to the United States."

It's a two-way bridge. The Chinese fans adore the American players. The sponsor-driven Americans see the benefits of tapping the world's largest sneaker market.

"Coming to China helps it," Wade said. "Our game is very global, very big over here. There's a lot of fans that we have over here. Everywhere we go, they show their excitement for us.

"It wasn't like that in Greece," Wade said. "We were looked at as cocky athletes, overpaid and all this and that. But over here they really appreciate the game of basketball that we play."

The fans showed their appreciation in the game against China on Sunday night. Wukesong Indoor Stadium was abuzz long before tipoff, and many of the night's loudest cheers went to the Americans.

In the same arena one night earlier, the men's team showed up for the U.S. women's basketball game against the Czech Republic. Soon, fans in nearby sections began chanting the players' names.

For a moment, it looked as if a minor riot might break out. Security guards arrived and ringed the players' section, but several Americans got up and high-fived the fans.

As flashbulbs popped, the players looked like political candidates on the campaign trail. And in some ways, that's what they are - except the Americans are seeking approval instead of votes.

Team USA has also tried to make friends with other American athletes. The players hope to create a different vibe than one the U.S. hoops team gave off in Athens, where the team stayed on a luxury cruise ship, fostering a perception of aloofness from athletes in the Olympic village.

Make no mistake: the U.S. isn't bunking down with badminton players in Beijing. It is quartered at the plush Intercontinental Beijing Financial Street Hotel. But the millionaire Americans have made an effort to mix with lesser-known Olympians.

After the opening ceremony, several players decided to grab a bite in a cafeteria at the Olympic village.

"We went to the cafeteria, and we took a million and three pictures and we signed a million and four autographs," Wade said. "The main thing is, everyone's done it because we're all enjoying this experience. Who (knows) who on this team is going to play in the next Olympics or who will ever get this opportunity again? Everyone is really living it up. I mean, it's totally different from '04, when I didn't really get to experience the Olympic experience."

Even Bryant, one of the world's megawatt athletes, pulled out a camera when he encountered U.S. swim stars Michael Phelps and Dara Torres.

"That's the first time I ever said, 'Hey, take this picture,' " Bryant said with a chuckle. "I'm taking this picture and putting it in my office."

Mostly, though, it's been the other way around. During the interminable wait to march in the opening ceremony, the American players posed for photos with other athletes.

"I had at least 10 different coaches from other sports come up to me and say, 'I want to thank you. Your guys have been so gracious and so good with the other athletes,' " U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

On Monday, a rare day off, a two players - Chris Bosh and Tayshaun Prince - visited the Great Wall. Others said they planned to catch a sports event or do some sightseeing in their new home away from home.

"The Chinese fans have done an outstanding job of welcoming us and making us feel at home," Paul said. "We're so appreciative for the hospitality."