LONDON — When it was all over, when the game was finished and the smiles had replaced looks of concern and after Bruce Springsteen‘s “Born in the USA” had served as the soundtrack for a crowd loving every minute of this billion-dollar collection of NBA stars wrapped up in American flags bowing for the audience, they locked arms, rose as one and stepped onto the medal stand to claim their prize.
The U.S. Men’s Senior National Team completed its gold medal mission Sunday, holding off a feisty Spain team 107-100 at North Greenwich Arena in the Olympic final to claim a matching gold medal for the one they captured four years ago in Beijing. The difference between pure joy and relief, though, is hard to make out with the stars and stripes covering their faces.
“Anytime you’re going for a championship there is a sense of relief, especially when you win,” Deron Williams said. “It’s been a long five weeks for us. We’ve been on the road since July 5th and it’s good to know that you’ve finished what you started.”
They actually completed a mission that started eight years ago with a blueprint to resurrect a USA Basketball program that had fallen on hard times after coming up empty in quests for gold at the 2002 World Championship in Indianapolis and the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Only LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony were retained from that 2004 squad that was humiliated in Athens, two of three men. They were there Sunday, arms locked with Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Williams, Kevin Love and young Anthony Davis, scoring machine Kevin Durant, the cosmic past, present and future of the program on the world stage.
Not only did they reclaim a nation’s basketball glory by winning a gold medal for the 14th time in 18 Olympic tries, they shattered records along the way, inspiring a rock star vibe here similar to the one another group of NBA stars did on their way historic gold 20 years ago in Barcelona.
Forget the comparisons, for now at least. The members of this U.S. Team are just glad to have completed the journey, which was tougher than most imagined with the U.S. struggling to surge past Spain until the final minutes of the game.
James put the finishing touches on one of the finest seasons in the history of the game, when the reigning NBA MVP soared for a dunk and a clutch 3-pointer in the final two minutes. And Paul came up huge with driving layup past two 7-foot defenders with 50.7 seconds to play to give the U.S. the separation it needed.
This game played along to a similar script from the 2008 game in Beijing, when Bryant and Dwyane Wade made plays late to help the U.S. win 118-107.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. And we didn’t want it easy,” James said. “A lot of teams have won gold easy. We didn’t ant it that way. We’re a competitive team. We love when it gets tight. And that’s when our will and determination shows. It was the same way in 2008. They’re a great team, much respect to them and we knew we were going to have to earn it.”
James earned his spot on the short list of players to win the NBA title, regular-season MVP, The Finals MVP and an Olympic gold medal in the same year. Michael Jordan was the first to do it 20 years ago. James finished the tournament with 273 career Olympic points, a U.S. record surpassing David Robinson‘s previous mark of 270.
“I could have never scripted it this way,” said James, whose record on the court since Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Boston is a staggering 19-1. ” I had many dreams about it, about winning a NBA championship and then following it up with a gold medal and being a part of so many great teams with so many other great players. I’m fortunate enough to be in this position and healthy and happy I was able to be able to do this for our country.”
He came through in the clutch Sunday, finishing with 19 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals while working defensively on everyone from 7-footers Pau and Marc Gasol to point guard Jose Calderon and shooting guard Juan Carlos Navarro.
“A lot of people doubted us, said we were too small and couldn’t compete with the size of a lot of teams,” James said. “But like Chris said, it’s not about size. It’s about heart. And it’s the heart that comes through. I’m happy we’ve got a lot of big hearts on our team.”
If this was his final Olympic moment, he has not made up his mind yet, it was an indelible one. And one he will always share with both Bryant and U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski, who have both said this was their last time in their respective roles.
Bryant scored 17 points Sunday to help the U.S. finish off Spain. He finishes his USA Basketball stint with two gold medals to add to his championship collection, five NBA titles with perhaps more on the horizon now that Dwight Howard and Steve Nash will join him and Paul Gasol (24 points, eight rebounds, seven assists) in Los Angeles with the Lakers.
“This is it for me,” he said. “They are good to go.”
Krzyzewski wrapped up his international coaching career with a sterling 62-1 record and having helped restore a legacy, along with USA Basketball chairman and managing director Jerry Colangelo.
“It’s been a great ride,” James said. “I don’t know if I’m going to be a part of the 2016 team. I know (Coach K) already said he’s done. We’ve had a great tide. I’m happy to be on the same floor with such a great and legendary coach.”
Whoever coaches the team in Rio in 2016 will already have a solid foundation in place, especially if Kevin Durant is still on the team.
Durant set an Olympic record for the most points in any single Summer Games with 156, the final 30 coming on this night — and each and every one of them was needed with Spain chasing all the way until the very end.
Durant praised his teammates and Krzyzewski and his staff for pushing him the way they did. The reigning and three-time NBA scoring champ, 23, didn’t want to offend any of his older peers.
“He really helped me out a lot, gave me confidence every single day,” Durant said. “Because it’s tough to come in here and play the way you play with your regular team. You don’t want to come in here and step on any toes. You don’t want to be that guy. He lets you know from the beginning we’ll be right there with you to the end.”
Durant is actually the model for the revamped USA Basketball program Colangelo and Krzyzewski have tried to cultivate the past eight years. He was identified early, brought along slowly and then unleashed on the world when his game was seasoned and ready.
“I felt like I did it right,” Durant said. “Out of college I had an opportunity to practice with these guys. Then I went into the Select Team process, and being one of the younger guys that was going to be looked at for years to come. Being one of the main guys on that 2010 team and then having this opportunity to come in here and compete for a gold medal, it was a long journey for me. Even though it was my first one, it was a long journey. I’m glad I got this opportunity and I’m glad I went through those situations and I’m just happy we got this gold.”
He said, “this one” as if expects there to be more … gold medals, that is.
“We’ll see,” he said, a nod to the constant chatter about the looming 23-under age-limit rule being discussed for future Olympic competitions. Durant was one of seven Olympic rookies to suit up for the U.S. “You never know how these things are going to play out.”
“Hopefully,” he said with a smile, “I get a chance to go to the next one.”