BEIJING – The United States was getting its test now, getting it good, and the visionary responsible for the restoration of USA Basketball climbed out of his seat and walked downstairs to the Americans’ bench. All these superstars, all the selflessness and sacrifice and, somehow, this gold medal coronation had transformed into true turmoil.
Spain’s Rudy Fernandez had lobbed a three-pointer, and U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski had called a timeout, and there were eight minutes left in the Olympic tournament. Spain had come all the way back to within two points, and such a sense of uncertainty rushed into the Wukesong Basketball Stadium.
“We couldn’t get away,” Colangelo said later, and deep down he understood that these final minutes promised to be the validation of his vision. No, they couldn’t get away, and this was the best thing that could’ve ever happened to the United States’ mission. They had to coach. They had to persevere.
Whatever everyone had believed, it wouldn’t be enough to just have Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the floor with a gold medal on the line. The U.S. had to have history, a bond, time together to turn five fingers into a fist. This moment of truth collided with the gold medal coronation, and no one was getting out of China – not the director nor the superstars – without the fight of a lifetime.
The world was waiting for the Americans to splinter, to devolve into one-on-one, and it never happened. Kobe Bryant didn’t just take the ball and go at the basket out of the timeout. He dribbled into the lane and passed to Deron Williams for a three-pointer. He wrapped another pass around the Spanish 7-footers to feed Dwight Howard for a dunk and, finally, watched Wade dribble to the rim and fire it back out for Bryant to finish it himself, the beginning of a breathless barrage that’ll go down forever as the passage that returned glory to a disgraced American basketball monolith.
All for one, all for America and Nike.
Across those final minutes, there were Bryant and Wade hitting immense three-pointers off beautiful passes, responses over and over to a spirited Spanish charge. It wasn’t until Wade’s shot with 2½ minutes left that the Americans pushed themselves out of harm’s way, out of the world’s reach. Golden again.
The final minutes of this 118-107 victory blended the best of American ingenuity and European efficiency, a spectacular statement on how the United States adapted, adjusted and restored itself to the top of the basketball world.
“Had we not been together for three years, we might have cracked,” Colangelo said. “Individuals might have gone one-on-one. That would’ve been the tendency. The continuity paid off.”
As it turned out, the United States desperately needed Bryant and Wade and James here. They needed them all, and they needed them to commit to those three years of preparation. They had to learn to play together, to trust, to master the nuances of the international game. The Americans had been so impressive in these Olympics for the way they played defense, but it disappeared in the gold-medal game. Spain’s stars were relentless and responded from a 37-point pounding to the United States in the preliminary round with a performance for the ages.
“They had to work for it,” Spain’s Pau Gasol said.
This wasn’t just good for American basketball, but the world. The standard gets raised again. Spain has a fantastic team returning in 2012, with the world getting an impressive glimpse into its 17-year-old wunderkind, Ricky Rubio. They’ll be better, and Team USA will return with an understanding: This isn’t so easy.
For everything the Dream Team did in 1992 to sell NBA basketball to hundreds of millions around the world, this generation of American superstars had a directive to repackage and resell it.
“Everyone wants to talk about NBA players as arrogant, as selfish,” Bryant said. “What you saw was a team today.”
For eight years, U.S. basketball suffered the embarrassments of two World Championships and the 2004 Olympics. It failed with top players passing on the chance to wear the uniform and unstable coaches like Larry Brown fostering toxic atmospheres. Mostly, they were just teams thrown together, the United States throwing perfect strangers into the Games and praying that somehow their singular talents would carry the day. No more.
For the first time, there wasn’t just relief for winning a gold medal. There was elation. This had been a three-year process for most of the players, and there was such a sense of ownership over this journey. Back on the eve of the Las Vegas training camp in July, Colangelo and Krzyzewski gathered the team for a meeting and gave everyone a chance to say something on the final leg of this journey.
Everyone else had spoken when Bryant finally had his turn.
“We all complain on our teams, that ‘I want to play with this player or that one,’ ” Bryant told his teammates. “Well, here we’ve got them all. This is how it’s supposed to be.
“We don’t have any excuses.”
For this team’s context in history, they needed this test in the gold-medal game, needed to leave the legacy of what happened when times turned tough here, when an American excess of talent couldn’t just bully its way to the podium. When everything was on the line, Colangelo rushed downstairs to get a closer inspection, and all his suspicions played out in perfect harmony.
“A lot of people doubted that NBA stars could play together,” Wade said.
This is the reason that Jerry Colangelo, the architect of it all, watched those final minutes behind the U.S. bench and tears started to well in his eyes. Here was a vision validated, here was the United States where it always believed it belonged: Golden again.