The chest thumping didn't look selfish, but like an expression of actual heart. Throughout the Beijing Games, the Redeem Team relished the role of heroes rescuing America's basketball honor, and when they finally earned their nickname with a victory over Spain that was at once enthralling yet less than world-supreme, 118-107, their elation was deservedly equal to the potential for a loss.
Kobe Bryant saluted. Carmelo Anthony wrapped an American flag around his waist like a towel. They kissed their gold medals, and studied them like children looking at new pennies, and held up roses. Generally, they behaved as if the quest for Olympic redemption had cured an inveterate tendency toward self-absorbed detachment by American NBA stars in international basketball.
"What you saw today was a team," said Bryant, who in addition to 20 points had six assists. "Everyone wants to talk about the NBA being selfish, arrogant individuals. What you saw was a team."
There was something irresistibly affecting about such very large and serious-faced men jumping around so giddily, after beating such a smart and dogged team in Spain. The satisfaction the U.S. team felt at restoring their status as the best team on the globe was enhanced by the fact that, after seven wins by at least 20 points, the United States finally had to win a competitive game, as Spain kept matters in doubt until less than two and a half minutes remained. "They had to work for it," said Pau Gasol, whose 21 points weren't even a team high. The high scorer was dazzling, NBA-bound 23-year-old guard Rudy Fernández, whose rain of jumpers were good for 22 points, and whose three-pointer from the corner cut the U.S. margin to 91-89 with 8 minutes 13 seconds to go.
It was only through sublime, hold-that-pose shotmaking that the Americans prevailed. With 3:10 to go, Bryant made a gasp-worthy four-point play. Facing Fernández on the left wing, he swept the ball toward the floor, jabbed a foot and then buried an arcing three, drawing the foul. Bryant stood with a look of triumph frozen on his face, and put a finger to his lips in a silencing gesture to the Spain section of the crowd, as if to say, "shhhhhhhhh."
The free throw made it 108-99, which should have been a comfortable margin. But it wasn't. "We'd be about to pull away, and something would happen," LeBron James said.
What happened was another step-back three from Spain, this one by Carlos Jiménez, to cut it to 108-104. "Every possession counted," James said, "every rebound, every pass, every shot counted."
Again, the United States answered: James hit Dwyane Wade on the left wing with a kick-out, and Wade buried the three and thrust out his jaw. Next, James snared a key defensive rebound, and Bryant converted it to a runner in the lane, for a 113-105 lead. That did it. The chants of "U-S-A" began. On the bench, Anthony was so excited that he knelt on the floor, on his hands and knees in anticipation. As the clock ran out and the Americans claimed their first gold medal since 2000, they jumped around the court as if they were on pogo sticks.
"I think it brought out the best in us," U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We're ecstatic. Ecstatic."
The Americans had come to Beijing almost with a sense of contrition. Four years ago in a bronze medal performance in Athens, Wade, Anthony and James were young role players on a squad that not only disappointed competitively, but behaved with an embarrassing sense of entitlement. They stayed on an ocean liner, ignored other events or attended them with headphones on, and generally strolled through the event seeming to lack appreciation for anything but themselves.
The trio of James, Anthony and Wade, wounded by the loss and criticism that American players were selfish and uncommitted, "touched base" after it was over, according to James, and decided to do something about it. They signed on to the three-year plan concocted by USA Basketball Managing Director Jerry Colangelo, who deserves a medal himself for making a spot on the team a privilege again. He insisted that they give up some free time and summer vacations, which, while hardly equivalent to a hitch in the service, was nevertheless something of a sacrifice. "We put our time, put our hearts," into it, James said.
Americans actually don't require all that much of the U.S. men's basketball team, despite our apparent insistence on gold or nothing. We can swallow losses (occasional ones, anyway) as long as when they represent their country, players live up to their technical brilliance and recognize that playing for money in a democratic country is an unimaginable luxury for other athletes; and as long as when they win, they let us share their unguarded celebration. This time, they shared the basketball, and shared the experience. "We was at America's lowest point in '04," Anthony said. "We did a hell of a job putting American basketball back where it's supposed to be, on top of the world."
During the medal ceremony, they stood erect and solemn. "Hands on hearts, guys, hands on hearts," Jason Kidd said.