Along the way, a group of players from the NBA, a league that is often criticized for an emphasis on individualism over team play, became a fun-loving, ball-sharing team.
“This is the funnest time of my life,” point guard Chris Paul said. “’08 was all good and well, but there was something about this 2012 team that was just special. I hate that this was our last game playing together.”
Durant, the Suitland native who is one of the world’s brightest stars, led the way with 30 points. James added 19 with seven rebounds, putting a second gold medal alongside the NBA championship he won this spring. Bryant, the old head by now, played his best in the final two games, adding 17 points and embracing Spanish star Pau Gasol, his Los Angeles Lakers teammate, at the end. This tournament meant enough that Gasol, in that hug, shed tears.
“It’s a heck of a thing,” U.S. Coach Mike Krzyewski said. “I love the way my guys responded today.”
Today? Since Krzyzewski took over in 2006, when America’s basketball reputation was bruised, the national team has gone 62-1. This after Argentina won gold in 2004, when the rest of the world came to expect that they were contenders, too.
“The result is what is important,” said Spanish captain Juan-Carlos Navarro, who scored 21 points, “which really hurts.”
It hurts because the Spanish contended. Midway through the third quarter, when Gasol scored and was fouled, Spain led 71-70. That advantage was immediately erased by a three-pointer by Bryant. With 1:51 left in the third, Spain tied the score at 80 on an inside bucket from Serge Ibaka. On the Americans’ next possession, Durant buried another three.
“The closer the game got,” Bryant said, “the more intense we got.”
But the lead was just one entering the fourth quarter. Then Paul, another in the Americans’ seemingly endless list of options, hit one three-pointer and later drove the lane for a six-point advantage. When James, who spent part of the fourth on the bench with foul trouble, dunked and hit a three on consecutive possessions, Spain was done.
“He’s the best player, and he’s the best leader, and he’s as smart as anybody playing the game right now,” Krzyzewski said of James. “We’ve developed a really close bond because I rely on him to do that for me.”