Gaining New Perspective
Friday, August 8, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 7 -- When the U.S. men's Olympic basketball team arrived in Athens four years ago, the players immediately checked into spacious cabins aboard the Queen Mary 2 -- a colossal cruise ship docked at Piraeus port on the Mediterranean Sea. It provided them ample security, a scenic view of an ancient city and isolation from the Olympic Village where thousands of other athletes from around the world were living.
In addition to distancing the NBA stars from the other Olympic athletes, the ship was also an excellent hideout when the team trudged back from one of its three embarrassing losses. This year's basketball team has learned from that experience, when, as Carmelo Anthony put it, "We was stuck on a boat."
When the players arrived in Beijing on Wednesday, they checked into one of the city's plush, modern hotels -- there's no way these superstar millionaires would stay in the little apartments in the village like other athletes. But they quickly decided that seclusion stinks.
After a short team meeting, the players boarded a bus and rushed to the Olympic Village, where they toured the facilities, ate at a McDonald's and mingled with other athletes for about four hours. Kobe Bryant described the venue as "Disney World for athletes."
"It was fun, man, because I didn't get to do none of that when I was here in '04," said Anthony, adding that the only time the players visited the village in Athens was before the Opening Ceremonies. "We really didn't have a chance to interact with nobody."
Bryant and LeBron James attracted the largest following, as athletes from the United States and other countries gathered to shake their hands and speak with them. Forward Chris Bosh said the throng was so intimidating that he had to break off from the group and go his separate way.
"We got bum-rushed going into the village," Anthony said before the team's first practice at Beijing Normal University, the base camp for American Olympians set up by the U.S. Olympic Committee. "You have some of the best athletes in the world and they look up to Kobe and myself and LeBron and [Dwyane] Wade. That kind of felt weird -- but it felt good at the same time."
The respect went both ways, as several players spoke with excitement about meeting U.S. swimmers Michael Phelps and Dara Torres. Anthony said he was thrilled to talk to Phelps, whom he met growing up in Baltimore. "I haven't met him since he won six gold medals in '04. So his whole life has changed," Anthony said. "I'm amazed at what he can do in that water. He's like a shark. I've never seen nobody swim like that before."
Anthony was then jokingly asked if he grew up in the same neighborhood as Phelps. "Nah," he said, "but we'll claim him."
Bryant, who grew up in Italy, said he met several Italian Olympians, including some who knew his childhood best friend. He also spoke with Los Angeles Lakers teammate Pau Gasol of Spain for about 30 minutes. Bosh met with current and former Toronto Raptors teammates José Calderón and Jorge Garbajosa of Spain, and Carlos Delfino of Argentina.
"We know we have to play one another in pool play," Bosh said of his Spanish opponents, "so we kept the words kind of limited."
Anthony, James and Bryant said that they plan to frequent the village and support other athletes while in Beijing.
"If time permits, you're going to see me everywhere," Bryant said. "This is great. I love seeing people do what they do best and be the best in the world at it. I might not come back [to the Olympics]. This is my chance to really enjoy it and that's what I'm going to do."
U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski said he wanted the players to enjoy their time in Beijing, adding that the players will visit the Great Wall on one of their days off. "First of all, now that we're here, there is only one thing that they're here for and that is to try to win a gold medal. This is the last part of a three-year commitment [but] they have to go out a little bit," he said. "I think what they would rather do is go out and see some other events, whether it be the women's team play or other events."
Bryant said the players won't lose track of their primary objective. "If we want to remain U.S. citizens," Bryant said, "we have to win gold."