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.”
James, playing in his third Olympics, became a huge part of the Americans’ turnaround. After a bronze-medal performance by a dysfunctional team at the 2004 Athens Games, a team that included teenagers James and Carmelo Anthony, USA Basketball seemed in some state of disarray. The organization struggled to get the best players to commit, and the rest of the world improved. That combination led Jerry Colangelo, the organization’s director, to seek out Krzyzewski, a decorated college coach with no pro pedigree, to not only lead the team on the floor, but to help draw players such as Bryant into the fold.
The choice wasn’t widely praised at the time. Colangelo can tick off the reasons, then and now, why he believed Krzyzewski would work.
“He’s a leader,” Colangelo said. “He’s one of the great communicators you’ll find in terms of any level or manner of sport, certainly basketball. He’s committed, and he’s passionate, and he bled red, white and blue. . . . I could go on and on for a half-hour about all the reasons why.”
There are more than a few questions going forward. This Olympics was not only the last for Krzyzewski, who will return full-time to his duties at Duke, and Bryant, who will be 37 at the next Olympics, but it also might be the last for the tournament in its current form. Much of the swirl around the event dealt with the possibility that, at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, teams would be made up of players 23 and younger. No one associated with the U.S. team seemed to be in favor of that.
“My plan is until told otherwise,” Colangelo said, “it’s business as usual until something else happens.”
Business as usual, once again, involves the Americans flogging the rest of the world. In eight games here, they were pushed deep into the fourth quarter twice – in group play against Lithuania and Sunday, when Spain held the lead midway through the third quarter. Even with that, they beat their opponents by an average of 32.1 points. Even in the tight games, a feeling filtered throughout the arena: If the Americans needed a bucket, be it from Durant or James or Bryant or someone else, they would deliver.
“These guys are just fun to be around, all great teammates,” Durant said. “They didn’t care about nothing but winning. When you see that, that’s just a joy.”
The joy came out in the final minute, when James and Bryant and Durant were pulled, and each swallowed Krzyzewski with an enormous hug. When the buzzer sounded, the Americans bounced and danced and smiled, and when it came time to receive their prizes, they locked arms and stepped as one onto the medal stand together.
“It probably sounds crazy to think that after winning a gold medal this is bittersweet, but it is,” Paul said. “It’s sweet to be able to have this gold medal around your neck, but it’s tough, because you don’t get this opportunity anymore.”