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Bob Ryan

They're back where they belong

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / August 24, 2008
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BEIJING -- Six years after falling into a huge hole in Indianapolis, the United States men's basketball team is once again able to see a clear blue sky.

"We were at America's lowest point in '04," said Carmelo Anthony. "I think we've done a helluva job of putting America back where it's supposed to be -- at the top of the world."

No, things didn't look so good for the US of A when they followed up their losses in the 2002 World Championships by losing three more times in Athens, and then by losing a humiliating game to Greece two years ago in the World Championships in Tokyo. America arrived here as champions of absolutely nothing, but it leaves here with gold medals, plus a renewed sense of basketball self, thanks to a stirring, 118-107 triumph over a Spanish team the Americans could not thank enough for putting them to a supreme test. Thanks to Spain, these gold medals were earned.

The first seven games here were basically boring dunkaramas, but on Sunday afternoon a very serious basketball game between two great teams broke out at the Olympic Basketball Gymnasium. Playing without their great guard Jose Calderon, the Spaniards demonstrated why they came here as the reigning World Champions, refusing to go away until the final minute or so, even as the Americans were shooting a blistering 60 percent (39-65) from the floor. It took some garbage-time free throws for the USA to ring up a 118-107 victory, the score both reflecting and obscuring the type of affair this was.

"Give respect where respect is due," said LeBron James, who, at 23, has the wisdom and poise of a 12-year veteran. "Spain was unbelievable. We had a game plan, and they countered everything we did. Every possession counted for 40 minutes."

Coach Mike Krzyzewski is well-known along Tobacco Road for making even the weakest vanquished foe into the second coming of the '85-'86 Celtics, but on this occasion his grandiose post-game pronouncement happened to be on the money. "We played with great character in one of the great games in international basketball history," gushed Coach K. "If we didn't have great character, we wouldn't have a team with the great character of Spain. It was great basketball at the highest level and it brought out the best in us."

No one could possibly have a greater sense of satisfaction than Jerry Colangelo, who in his guise as managing director of this team, was given the task of re-constructing Humpty-Dumpty after his tumble from the wall left him title-less in three consecutive international competitions. The idea for a three-year commitment geared toward the institution of a true national team was his. Mike Krzyzewski was his choice as coach. These players were his players. The prestige of the NBA and the national sporting honor of a country in which basketball was invented were at stake.

"This victory was a testament to Jerry Colangelo," declared Kobe Bryant, who saved his best basketball for the last two games.

That's true, and it was gracious of him to say that, but, as Colangelo, the coaching staff and all the rest of us know organization can only take you so far. In the end it's about athletes doing what they love to do and what they've trained themselves over a lifetime to do. It's about answering the bell. It's about walking that walk.

For seven games Team USA had never really been tested. Spain was a different matter. Spain showed a resiliency the others lacked, and thus with 8:13 to go the true Olympics began for the USA when a three-pointer by the dynamic Rudy Fernandez (who is Portland property) cut what had been a 14-point (58-44), and then an eight-point (69-61) three-quarter deficit to two at 91-89. No one knew how the USA, which had more pressure on it than all the other competitors combined, would react.

Well, this is how.

Kobe stutter-stepped into the teeth of Spain's troublesome 2-3 zone for a runner. Kobe next found Deron Williams for a three-pointer on the left wing. Kobe made a move and dished off to Dwight Howard for a dunk. Fernandez hit the fourth of his five threes, but Kobe drilled a left-wing transition three (the USA had 27 fast break points) and then LeBron finished off a 12-3 run with a mighty left-handed putback.

Was Spain finished? Nah. Quit, finish, stop, give up -- none of these were in their bilingual vocabularies. So it was that with 1:52 left Carlos Jiminez, who had just hit a three, was all by himself on the right wing, his team very much in it at 111-105. A three there would have done some damage to the roof. But the ball wouldn't drop and LeBron pulled down the rebound. When Kobe -- that name keeps popping up, doesn't it? -- coaxed home another little runner in the lane, it was 113-105 with 1:11 left, and that's when things started getting a little giddy on the USA bench.

When it was over, Spain had never really been stopped by the Americans. They had played very well. But the new kings of the basketball world had simply played better.

"We never backed down," said Pau Gasol, who scored 21 points, in rather obvious understatement.

For James, Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Carlos Boozer, all unused and unwanted kiddies sitting at the end of Larry Brown's Athens bench, it was a sweet moment of personal triumph. Wade was essentially unstoppable, compressing 13 of his game-high 27 points into his first five minutes on the floor. For Howard, Chris Paul and Chris Bosh, it was likewise a thoroughly redemptive feeling, for they had also been on the losing end of that pick-and-roll fiasco in Tokyo against the Greeks.

For all 12 of them, there was the satisfaction of silencing the critics, both domestic and international, who did not believe these rich, pampered souls could ever again put aside egos and personal agendas long enough to become something resembling a team. Some people had honestly arrived at the conclusion that to be an American basketball player of prominence in the early 21st century is to be, by definition a lost cause in terms of being a true team player.

No one who watched this team play could make that statement.

"I see a big improvement," said Gasol. "They took this tournament very seriously. I saw guys who were hungry and who wanted to get to the top, and that's what they've done. But they had to work for it. They have a better feel as a team. They worked hard and they complemented each other. It was not so much the individual stuff, and they were well-directed by the coaching staff."

One thing is clear: The new spokesperson, the new leader, the new face of American basketball is LeBron James. Anyone who joins this team and tries to mess with what these guys have established as the working M.O will have to answer to him.

Next stop: Turkey, 2010. World Championships. The USA is back.

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