PEOPLE WILL trot
out school as a verb in the aftermath of the U.S.'s run through the men's
basketball field in Beijing, where the Redeem Team went 8--0 and reclaimed
Olympic gold with a 118--107 defeat of Spain on Sunday. The Americans schooled
the world, winning by an average of almost 30 points. But it was the spirit of
school as a noun—Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and his ability to sell a college
atmosphere to a bunch of NBA stars—that returned the U.S. to the top of the
global basketball heap.
Only one player on
the American team, reserve forward Tayshaun Prince, logged four years of
college ball, and three—guard Kobe Bryant, forward LeBron James and center
Dwight Howard—passed up entirely what NBA lifer Hubie Brown once called
"that boola-boola bulls---." Coach K's guys, used to playing for pay,
needed to learn how to play for something intangible. So Krzyzewski, a West
Point grad, introduced some college-style bonding. He took his team to military
bases and brought wounded vets in to speak. He led boat tours to Ellis Island
and the Statue of Liberty. The parallels to university life only multiplied
upon the team's arrival in Beijing. "When we're at the Olympic Village, I
tell the guys that it reminds me of dorms," guard Chris Paul said last
week. "We see zones and play 40 minutes, like in college." As the U.S.
began medal-round play, signs appeared on each seat on the team bus reading
TAKE NOTHING FOR GRANTED and WE ARE 0--0. Like a rush chair, Coach K got his
men to pledge USA.
After failures at
the 2002 world championships and the '04 Olympics, national team managing
director Jerry Colangelo received three-year commitments from a pool of
players, then watched the new Team USA flop in its first international outing,
the '06 worlds in Japan, where the U.S. allowed Greece to score on 10 straight
pick-and-rolls during a semifinal loss. But it's hard to envision the U.S.
collecting gold in China without that motivating stumble. "When you lose,
you need to figure out why," says Krzyzewski. "We hadn't been together
long enough. Did we know as much then as we do now? No. Just as a freshman in
college doesn't know as much as a junior or senior."
To extend the
collegiate metaphor in the way the Redeem Team extended its half-court defense,
Bryant was the USA social chair. The Lakers' star took in at least a half dozen
sports at the Games, including men's and women's soccer, swimming and beach
volleyball. He even upbraided members of the press who snickered when Bryant
said he regretted missing synchronized swimming. "Y'all laughing?" he
said. "I'm dead-ass serious. That's probably the hardest sport I've ever
Bryant & Co.
hung out in the Village. They caught a traveling exhibition of terra cotta
warriors. And they haunted the pool deck at the Water Cube, lending support to
the hoopheads who populate the U.S. swimming team. When Michael Phelps returned
the favor, dropping by the locker room following a preliminary-round victory
over Germany, he found James wearing goggles, with his feet in a tub of ice
water. "That all you got?" said Phelps, proving to be as quick on land
as in the water. "An ice bucket—and you've only got your feet in
well-rounded Olympic experience lent them vital perspective. "They play
like a team," said Lithuania assistant coach Rimas Kurtinaitis, who helped
shoot down the U.S. at the 1988 Games. "They understand it's basketball,
not just the NBA. I don't know how they spend the nights, if there are women in
their rooms. But if they are serious, for sure they are the strongest
They were serious.
In pool play they had laid down a marker against Spain with a 37-point victory,
including a 32--0 advantage in transition points. On Sunday, Spain made
adjustments, taking better care of the ball, so the Americans delivered
heartbreak in a different fashion. Pity Spanish coach Aíto García Reneses, who
had to go into the locker room at halftime and explain to his team—after it had
shot 61.2% from the floor, outrebounded the U.S. 14--12 and had sunk five of
eight three-pointers and 18 of 21 free throws—why it trailed by eight.
But after forward
Carlos Jiménez, their captain, knocked down a three-pointer with 2:25 to play,
the Spaniards trailed by only four, 108--104. "If we hadn't been together
for three years, we might have cracked," Colangelo would say later.
"Our instincts might have been to go one-on-one."
treated the Spaniards as if they'd spoken ill of synchro. Early in the Olympics
he had talked about "letting the Mamba out of the cage," and down the
stretch the door came unlatched. Bryant had already delivered a four-point play
that fouled out sublime Spanish guard Rudy Fernández; here Bryant hit a hanger
in the lane that spurred the U.S. to an unassailable lead. "Everyone wants
to talk about NBA players being selfish and arrogant," he said afterward.
"What you saw today was a team bonding together in the face of
Americans seemed to have sprung whole from the front of a Wheaties box. It was
Spain that posed for an offensive advertisement pre-Games, with eyes pulled
narrow in twisted homage to their Chinese hosts, and los Rojos who lost their
heads with two late technicals. In the fog of the '06 loss to Greece, after
Krzyzewski had spoken numbly of how "number 4" had done this to his
team and "number 12" had done that, the European press pounced,
charging him with not even knowing the names of opposing players.
"Baloney," says Krzyzewski. "We'd just lost to Greece, and I wanted
to stick a dagger in my heart." But he understood the importance of
perception and in Beijing spent three weeks paying respect to the rest of the
world. "REE-us—am I pronouncing that correctly?—had a great game against
us," Krzyzewski said on Sunday. (It's actually RAY-us, as in center Felipe
Reyes, but it's the thought that counts.)