Stratford, London—As the contented masses left behind a court of stars to step under a watery full moon, the Olympic basketball arena behind them glowed red, white and blue. Team USA's takeover was complete.
They came in thousands to watch the NBA's finest do their thing against Tunisia. Some were seasoned, lifelong fans of the game; others, basketball novices. One man referenced his iPad for the rules, while another—wearing a retro college jersey—yelled knowing instructions to the superstar players beneath.
The 12,000-strong crowd in the furthest reaches of London's vast Olympic Park was as diverse as it was hysterical. Conducted by a zany MC, and with cheerleaders and dance troupes on call to keep things giddy during breaks in play, it was as if this corner of England had crossed the Atlantic for the night.
A scan around the impressive temporary venue confirmed it. Stars and stripes painted much of the bleachers, and fans in Captain America and Abraham Lincoln costumes boldly paraded their wares around every corner. "Let's go, U.S.A," they screamed, and plenty more took citizenship for the night to scream with them.
For many, this was nothing short of a sporting pilgrimage. Talk of Kobe and LeBron filled the air as the evening session drew close, and there was a sense among the expectant congregation that we were about to witness the greatness.
But before the headline act came a matchup between France and Argentina—and the chance to see Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili go head-to-head and make the NBA's opening statement.
Analysis should be left to the experts—here's Ryan Rudnansky's report—but suffice it to say, the French were inspired by Parker to a wholly deserved upset victory. The man we know best in Europe as Eva Longoria's ex might have been outscored by Ginobili, but he arguably exerted the greater influence.
The crowd lapped him up, and Parker enjoyed every minute of it. The goggles came on and off and on again, but Parker's class was constant. He prowled and pounced, and he played conductor like it was the most natural thing in the world.
But for all the entertainment provided by France and Argentina, the biggest cheer during their matchup was reserved for a handful of oversized spectators taking their seats during the second quarter. Dressed in baggy team tracksuits, with designer headphones clearly a requirement, in strolled some of the biggest names on planet sport.
Team USA were in the building.
Soon enough, they were warming up and throwing down dunks and three-pointers as freely as the fans were throwing down overpriced beers and soft drinks (you'll have to excuse my basketball terminology if it's off here; I'm a soccer writer).
The contest hadn't yet started, but already you felt for the Tunisian team in their role as the evening's sacrifice. It's bad enough being vastly inferior to your opponents, let alone having a partisan and extremely vocal crowd baying for your blood.
"Let's hear it for Tunisia," called the MC, rather optimistically, as tipoff approached. Five men waving a flag did their best to respond. The rest of the crowd had their eyes fixed on the Dream Team.
And so to the action, which started with Tunisia doing a passable impression of a team who could keep things respectable. Threes were flying in from everywhere, and the African champions were playing with the freedom of a team with nothing to lose.
For a while it was close, but by halftime, a 13-point ballgame had already become a question of how many. And with Carmelo Anthony's impressive blitz at the start of the third quarter came the signal for Team USA to turn on the style and give the crowd what they came for.
It was then that we began to see the togetherness and spirit of Mike Krzyzewski's squad. They leaped from the bench to hail the alley-oops and dunks of their teammates and appeared to be relishing every moment. It didn't seem to matter who was on the court or who was getting the points; the fact that Team USA were delivering the goods was enough.
The U.S. dominated the third quarter 39-14 and may well have broken the Olympic record for high-fives in the process. By the time they were done, the scoreboard read 110-63 in their favor, and fans inside the arena had been treated to a handful of outrageous attacking plays that summoned the Harlem Globetrotters.
But for all their exuberance and expression, the U.S. never once touched on arrogance. They respected their opponents and acted with humility on the court at all times. It was, in every sense, an Olympian performance and will live long in the memory for those lucky enough to have witnessed it.
Here's B/R's Josh Martin with a more qualified take on the game, and with that, I'll leave you to contemplate the scene as thousands of satisfied Team USA fans made their way into the London night having realized the dream of watching the Dream Team.