It is quite surreal to suddenly see LeBron James and Kevin Durant fighting together. Just a moment ago, they were battling for legacies before the watchful gaze of millions.
The Olympics could be an interesting narrative test, but only if Team USA loses. If the Americans win, we will take it for granted, since that is beyond the expectation. The exhibition round added to the sense of confidence, with America obliterating the competition over its five-game trial run.
The "Redeem Team" changed the game, as did Durant's subsequent Worlds domination. Over the course of four years, USA basketball as gone from being perceived as deeply flawed to quite indomitable. Both assumptions were a little too hyperbolic. The U.S. made questionable roster decisions in 2000 and 2004. In 2008, Spain gave America a fight to the finish. In 2010, many countries sent their B teams.
The sense of inevitability, of an assured American gold medal, is likely an illusion. This will be tough, there will be challenges. But I'm more interested in the challenges posed to how we might view the American players.
Games played overseas have traditionally been misremembered, with the public taking only what they believed prior the tournament. The Beijing Olympics are known as "Kobe's" gold medal, but mostly because that was the apogee of his NBA star status. To be sure, Bryant had a fantastic gold-medal game, but you could hardly argue that his 7-of-14, six assist showing was better than Dwyane Wade’s 9-of-12, 27-point triumph that same night.
Wade has been a forgotten man in international basketball, despite utter FIBA dominance. In Beijing, he shot a ridiculous 67 percent in the tournament. Nobody remembers, nobody cares. He was America's best player in 2008 and 2006. It's as though he never even crossed the water.
Durant's World Championship may have represented a shift in how we remember these events. Social media enables fans to follow more ardently, even if the games are happening at strange times, in faraway locations. KD's Worlds run was so lauded that many were convinced he'd easily snag an MVP trophy. Unfortunately for Durant, scoring against NBA defenses is not as effortless as slicing through Team Turkey.
So LeBron James, fresh off the greatest moment of his career, may just be playing in the most scrutinized basketball tournament, ever. The Dream Team was historic and well-remembered, but we simply lacked the technology to follow in detail. Today, we have it all and we will discuss all of it.
A loss for Team USA would likely lead to some recalibration of the altered LeBron narrative. I wouldn't agree with this, or think it fair. An eight-game tourney run shouldn't change how we view any athlete's ability, but there are still those who hate LeBron and wish to find any scrap of criticism to lob in his direction.
While James has bought himself much with a championship victory, the public and media never let him buy as much as his fellow superstar. Until 2012, the only evidence cited in his favor was negative. Excellent fourth-quarter play would get dismissed. The occasional fourth-quarter flub would be broadcast as indicative of what LeBron lacked.
The Olympics present another kind of title, another measuring stick. My assumption is that a Team USA failure will bring us right back (we have no memory in sports culture) to the point of questioning James' "killer instinct," as if there is such a thing, as if such a quality isn't just something we bestow on winners after the fact.
If not, it either shows that LeBron has earned himself quite a lot with one title, or that America is barely paying attention to a tournament abroad. In a way, the less rational the analysis stemming from London 2012, the better it reflects on basketball fandom. If people wildly react to a gold-medal failure, it shows that they actually care.