By Andrew Bagnato
Monday, August 25, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 24 -- After cruising for two weeks at the Olympics, the United States was challenged for 40 minutes.
And it was worth every last one.
The Americans' riveting 118-107 victory against Spain in Sunday's gold medal game showed how good the U.S. team could be under pressure, and it capped a three-year mission to put the United States back atop the basketball world.
"This team has come a long way, and we had a lot of blowouts those first few games," point guard Chris Paul said. "So it was fitting that this one would be a close one. It really tested us to see what we were all about, and in the end, we showed we're the best in the world."
And hokey as it may sound, the Americans learned the value of teamwork.
This was the Americans' 13th gold medal in men's basketball, but none of the others was anything like it. There had been bounce-backs before -- after Munich, after Seoul. But no U.S. men's basketball team ever worked harder for the ultimate Olympic prize.
It was more than a bit symbolic when the team locked arms and stepped onto the medal platform before accepting the United States' first gold medal since 2000 in the sport it invented.
"It wasn't so much individual stuff and individual talent," said Spain's Pau Gasol, who scored 21 points. "It was more teamwork, probably well-directed by their coaching staff.
"I've seen the guys hungry and want to get back to the top," Gasol said. "That's what they've done. They were able to get to the top again and show that they should be in first place, but they had to work for it."
Dwyane Wade scored 27 points to lead the Americans and Kobe Bryant added 20.
Afterward, the entire U.S. team appeared at the postgame news conference, many of the players draped in American flags.
"If it wasn't for the determination and the willpower that we have in each other, we wouldn't have pulled through and gotten this win," said LeBron James, who emerged as the leader of this team. "Much respect to Spain, but the U.S. is back on top again."
Now the trick is staying there.
The United States may have taught the world how to play basketball. But it took the U.S. team eight long years -- and several embarrassing losses -- to understand what it takes to rule in the 21st century.
After the bronze medal finish in the 2004 Olympics, the Americans realized that a hastily assembled team of NBA all-stars can't always beat a finely tuned foreign team.
Jerry Colangelo, USA Basketball's managing director, addressed the problem by requiring a three-year commitment from players that began before the 2006 world championship.
That commitment paid off Sunday, when the Americans had to pull together as the resilient Spaniards whittled a 14-point deficit to four with 2:22 to play.
The U.S. team had hammered Spain by 37 points in pool play. But Spain didn't go so quietly with a medal on the line.
"I think this is a testament to the system that Mr. Colangelo put in place," Bryant said. "What you saw today was a team. Everybody wants to talk about NBA players being selfish, being arrogant, being individuals. Well, what you saw today was a team bonding together, facing adversity and coming out of here with a big win."
The United States figured out that it takes a team to win.
"We've got a lot of guys on this team that are individually great," Wade said. "But individually great doesn't mean anything.
"We had to play together at both ends of the floor," Wade said. "If we'd have gone the other way and gotten selfish with ourselves, we wouldn't be sitting here talking with gold medals around our necks."