Redeem Team Fans Out

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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 14, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 13 -- LeBron James embarrassed them with a menacing blocked shot and a left-handed windmill dunk in the United States' 97-76 win on Tuesday, so several members of the Angolan men's basketball team rushed him afterward -- for pictures and autographs. James politely posed as the Angolans wrapped their arms around him, smiled and clicked their cameras for group and solo shots.

On Wednesday morning, it was the U.S. men's basketball players' turn to show their appreciation for another athletic achievement. James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Jason Kidd watched U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps win gold medals and set world records in the 200-meter butterfly and 4x200 freestyle relay. Bryant hugged Phelps's mother, Debbie, and sat next to her while Phelps raced.

Phelps is "so far ahead of everybody else, it was almost laughable," Bryant said a few hours later, before the Olympic basketball team practiced at Beijing Normal University. "To be honest with you, I don't think I've ever seen anything more spectacular than the performance they put on in the pool. That's what the Olympics are about for me -- going out and watching greatness. It's fun."

Between practices and games, the U.S. basketball team doesn't have much free time, but most of the players -- among the most immediately recognizable athletes at the Games -- are taking advantage of the opportunity to appreciate the Olympics as spectators, even if it means being mobbed by their own fans in the stands.

"I heard my mom took a picture with LeBron," Phelps said. "Having those guys here is pretty special. You can kind of hear them starting cheers and getting everybody going. It's pretty neat."

The team attended the U.S. women's basketball game against the Czech Republic on Saturday, and fans had to be restrained as they tried to get closer to take pictures. Most of the players have watched Phelps swim. James has seen Serena Williams and Roger Federer play tennis. Anthony and Dwight Howard have gone to boxing matches. Michael Redd plans to watch table tennis. Bryant has seen defending gold medalists Ricardo Santos and Emanuel Rego of Brazil in beach volleyball.

"We've been getting a great reception," Anthony said. "I don't think the other athletes expected that we'd be coming to their competitions. Every time we see somebody, they give us a warm welcome, like: 'Thank you. Thank you.' They appreciate it so much."

The players been able to get prime seats for most of the events by trading their allotted tickets for basketball games with athletes from the sports they want to watch. USA Basketball also has purchased tickets for select events.

"It's tough to try and navigate the city, but I'll be all over the place," Bryant said. "I'm fortunate enough that I've been here before. I've been to the Forbidden City. I've been to the Great Wall. I've been to Tiananmen Square. For me, it's about going to the events."

The morning after the men's team beat China, Chris Bosh, Tayshaun Prince, Coach Mike Krzyzewski and assistant Jim Boeheim visited the Great Wall. Bosh said he had to take advantage of the visit because he may never be back in Beijing. Krzyzewski was with his wife, his three daughters and their husbands, and his five grandchildren and compared the visit to the National Lampoon "Vacation" movies. "To be on the Great Wall of China with the Griswolds was great. I'm glad we didn't hurt anything," Krzyzewski said with a laugh.

Krzyzewski also had an interesting perspective on the wall. He and his son-in-law, Chris Spatola, are graduates of the U.S. Military Academy. "We determined, tactically, this was kind of stupid. You don't build this wall in mountains. There must have been some guy that really liked having a wall because you really didn't need that to defend a country," he said. "In saying that . . . you think, 'Wow, could this really go from L.A. to New York?' You try to fathom that, while making sure your grandkids don't jump off."

The players haven't ventured out to eat at local restaurants, choosing instead to stay at the team hotel, where an American chef is preparing their meals. "It's hard to go anywhere without getting swarmed," Paul said.

Bryant would have the hardest time. He arguably is the most popular athlete in Beijing -- even surpassing Chinese basketball star Yao Ming -- and has been serenaded with chants of "Ko-be! Ko-be!" at airports, the Opening Ceremonies and during games. Bryant said the response has been mind-boggling. "I don't know when this happened. It's different," he said. "I don't remember it being like this."

"Kobe might want to think about moving here -- to live," Anthony joked.

Bosh said the reaction of fans has been the same whether the players are at the Great Wall, the Athletes' Village or at other sporting events. "It's always funny to get the reaction -- especially from other athletes," Bosh said. "When we go to the Village and people are running up to you, I'm like, 'We're all athletes and we all do the same things.' People are still like: 'Can I have your autograph? Can I take a picture?' "

But not every athlete is always on television across the globe, Bosh was reminded.

"I have to remember what type of position we're in," he said.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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