- Last Updated: 7:18 AM, August 13, 2012
- Posted: 1:00 AM, August 13, 2012
LONDON — History might have begged for the
Russians to be the ones who showed up in the gold-medal game, 40 years after Munich, 24 years after Seoul. But in its own way, Spain was the perfect opponent.
Because it was in Barcelona, 20 years ago, that the United States started to reclaim its place at the forefront of the sport invented at a small Massachusetts college in 1891. It was in Barcelona where the Dream Team — celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer — brought basketball in a rush toward modernity.
And it was on Barcelona that so many of the members of this 2012 Spanish team had their young eyes lasered, watching Magic and Michael and Larry and the rest. Spain had always been a competitive international power, but across the last two Olympics, it has emerged as something else: the best team in the Olympics, non-U.S. division.
That only gets you a silver medal these days, because as we discovered across the past 16 days the Americans, at this time in their history, are no longer interested in being ambassadors of the game if ambassadorial behavior involves losing, as they did twice in the 2004 Olympics, as they did plenty in finishing sixth in the 2002 world championships, the moment when you really started wondering about just how profoundly the axis had shifted.
“My team is a great team, it plays with a lot of heart and courage and character,” Spain’s coach, Sergio Scarliolo, said. “We thought if we could hold the U.S. under 100 points we would have had a chance. And when you look at the score [U.S. 107, Spain 100] then you see that’s what would have happened.”
He smiled and shook his head, leaving unspoken the sentiment: “If.”
This is what American basketball has become over the last two Olympics. It has reached a level where ambition, attitude and commitment all match the talent. Forget ’92, a feel-good exhibition that featured 11 Hall of Famers understanding in the moment what they were accomplishing. American basketball truly started losing its way during the trash-talking embarrassment that was the ’94 World Championships in Toronto, and the polish really started to fade during a dull ’96 Olympics and a desultory ’00 Games in Australia.
And then it all came crashing down in a heap. The ’02 fiasco, finishing sixth in Indianapolis. And then 2004, Athens, where Puerto Rico stomped them early, Argentina finished them off late, and everything we ever thought about USA Basketball was called into question. Because it wasn’t just that the world had caught up; it seemed like they were playing the game — our game — at a level we might never be able to reach any more.
Two of the players on that ’04 fiasco, of course, were LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, and so they are easy reference points now that the phoenix has risen from the dust. Neither was the team’s most dominant force — that would be the breathtaking Kevin Durant (30 points, nine rebounds) — nor its most critical (Chris Paul was the one who made every important decision yesterday, as Spain refused to play patsy for 40 minutes).
But they were the face of failure in ’04, along with Larry Brown, two enfantes terribles who seemed to illustrate the too-much-too-soon, too-little appreciation mindset of modern American basketball. They could have soured on the whole experience, could have spread the word about that. But both went another way.
Both anchored Redeem Team in 2008, when the Americans held off Spain in the gold-medal game. And both came back a third time this time, and while there was a scare against Lithuania and a few minutes yesterday where you started to wonder, there was too much pride at stake. And too much talent. And, goodness, just think: Dwight Howard wasn’t here. Dwyane Wade wasn’t here. Blake Griffin wasn’t here.
They are ambassadors again, and for all the right reasons. They shake hands with referees. They embrace old American gladiators like Doug Collins, immediately after winning, knowing his tortured history with Olympic basketball. You may want to find reasons to dislike the idea of pros in the Olympics, but they make it very hard because they are very good. And they really do exude class and sportsmanship.
In Spain, the Dream Team found its stage. And against Spain, their descendants have found something else: a soul that provides just as much an example as their talent ever did.