Team USA Basketball Claims Gold in Beijing

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Team USA Basketball Claims Gold in Beijing
As the college football season approaches, I’d like to share with you my favorite part of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
For many people, their favorite memory could have been a number of things—perhaps it was Jamaican speedster Usain Bolt’s bravado and showmanship en route to setting the track and field world on fire, perhaps it was American swimmer Michael Phelps and his successful climb to Olympic immortality, or perhaps it was watching the American women claim gold in a captivating beach volleyball match against the Chinese.
Like many people, I’ve been captivated by the Olympics the past few weeks, but my favorite memory can be summed up in one word—redemption.
Of course, I’m referring to the “Redeem Team”—the USA Men’s Basketball team that not only claimed the gold medal, but restored the world order in a game that we invented. I’d been waiting four years for this one, trust me.

I’ll never forget how disappointed I was to watch Allen Iverson and company standing on the podium with their bronze medals in 2004. Trust me, James Naismith would have been spinning in his grave!
This was America’s game! If there was going to be a world competition in the game of basketball—America simply should not lose, no questions asked.
Then USA basketball decided to embarrass itself even more by laying an egg at the FIBA Americas Championship in 2005 and finishing fourth. It was without a doubt the low point for the USA men’s basketball program, and they had to regroup.

The Americans now had their backs to the wall. A basketball program that routinely coasted to Olympic gold now had to worry about even qualifying for the 2008 Olympics! Thus in the summer of 2007, they had to advance to the finals of the FIBA Americas Championship to even qualify for the 2008 games in Beijing.
The USA failing to qualify for the Olympics in men’s basketball was unfathomable to me. Competing for a world title in basketball without America would be like competing for a world soccer title without Brazil—it simply wouldn’t seem right.
But not to worry—the Americans earned their spot in Beijing by playing with a sense of purpose and focus that hadn’t been seen in a long time, and won the FIBA Americas Championship in the summer of 2007.

The USA men’s basketball team arrived in Beijing with a mission: win the gold medal—or else be viewed at as yet another embarrassment for a program with a once-proud tradition. They were fittingly tabbed “The Redeem Team” by many members of the American media, because of their quest to redeem not only themselves, but the name of USA basketball.

In exhibition play, USA basketball did not disappoint. They played their best basketball, and in doing so, thoroughly dominated their opponents. They made dazzling plays look routine, like the alley-oop windmill dunk that Dwayne Wade had against Lithuania.
This was a team that would accept nothing but victory, even if it really didn’t count. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and company were clicking on all cylinders.

USA breezed its way through pool play, looking extremely impressive en route to a perfect 5-0 record.  Each game looked like a highlight film, with the Americans utilizing their suffocating defense to get out and score easy baskets in transition.  Dunks, alley oops, and lay ups came with ease.
The American squad looked like one of the most dominant basketball programs ever assembled, and many began comparing the “Redeem Team” to the “Dream Team” of 1992.  The Americans weren’t just beating their opponents—they were blowing them out of the water. 
In those five exhibition games, they posted an average margin of victory of over 32 points a game!  Not only that, the team that was supposed to be their toughest challenge—Spain—wasn’t even that close. America made a statement, throttling Pau Gasol and the Spaniards by 37, 119-82. The Americans shot a simmering 57 percent from the field in that game and had an astonishing seven players score in double digits.
The biggest blowout in those five games came in the last game before the tournament., when the Germans were on the wrong end of a 106-57 beatdown. Dirk Nowitzki and company could simply find no answer for Dwight Howard, who stuffed the stat sheet with 22 points and 10 rebounds.

In the Olympic quarterfinals, the USA cruised past Australia, 116-85—thanks to Kobe Bryant, who shot a scalding 62 percent from the field and 57 percent from three-point range. He racked up 25 points and five rebounds in one of his best performances of the Olympics.

The semifinals saw USA face their toughest test yet in Argentina. Kobe had mentioned before the game that they wanted to play Argentina because they were the defending gold medalists from 2004. Of course, let’s not forget that Argentina was the team that defeated the Americans in the semifinals of 2004—this one definitely had a little extra on the line.

The Americans used some of the best defense they had played in the Olympics to bolt out to a 21-point lead before Argentina’s star Manu Ginobli left the game for good in the second quarter. But it seemed as if USA began to let up defensively and lose focus, and Argentina used their zone defense to cut the American lead to six points.
They would never get any closer than that, as Carmelo Anthony nailed several clutch free throws to stretch the American lead and ensure victory. Anthony was perfect from the free throw line, making all 13 of his attempts and contributiong 21 total points for the Americans.
The USA prevailed 101-81, but it wasn’t pretty—and Luis Scola and company ensured it wasn’t easy. Scola tormented the USA all night long, dumping in 28 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks and two steals in what was one of the best performances posted against the Americans in the Olympics.

So it wasn’t pretty, but USA had finally arrived at the doorstep of the gold medal. Redemption was so close they could taste it, but first they would have to get past Spain—a team that was likely looking to avenge its 37-point shellacking earlier in pool play.
But if the Spaniards were going to defeat the Americans it was going to have to be without their excellent point guard, Jose-Manuel Calderon, who was injured in their semifinal match against Lithuania.

Things got interesting early, when the Americans saw two of their best players—LeBron James and Kobe Bryant—head to the bench early due to picking up two fouls apiece in the first quarter.

Rudy Fernandez and Pau Gasol made sure that Spain stayed in this one the entire game—hitting several clutch baskets for the Spaniards. Fernandez was hotter than grease on a stove, shooting over 53 percent from the field and over 55 percent from three-point range to finish with 22 points. He nailed a fadeaway three-pointer, and had a thunderous throwdown over Dwight Howard.
Spain fed Gasol the basketball on the pick and roll for most of the game, and he finished with 21 points for Spain.

The Americans led by nine at the end of the third quarter, but a few buckets by Gasol and Fernandez and trimmed the lead to two. After the Americans rebuilt the margin to seven, Gasol nailed a jumper to cut the lead to five, 99-104, with 3:27 left to play in the game.
On the next American possession, with the Spanish crowd cheering wildly, the USA kicked the ball outside the three-point line to Kobe Bryant, who not only nailed the biggest shot of the game, but drew a foul from Rudy Fernandez, who fouled out of the game with 3:10 left to play.
Kobe’s competitive juices were flowing, and you could see the killer instinct come out in him after this play. After he drilled the shot, he froze into a statue and brought his index finger up to his lips to silence the raucous Spanish crowd behind the basket.
Bryant made his free throw to stretch the American lead to nine, 108-99. Spain would cut the lead to four again, 108-104 with just over two minutes to play, but the Americans got another clutch basket from their most consistent player of the Olympics, Dwyane Wade.
Wade nailed a three-pointer to extend the lead to seven, 111-104, with 2:03 remaining in the game.  The Americans would never look back as they won a classic, 118-107.

The “Redeem Team” accomplished exactly what it set out to do—and nothing could have made me happier. They didn’t do it without a tough test from Spain, who gave the Americans all they could handle and more.
Spain brought its best performance to the floor, but they also faced the Americans’ best performance. Spain shot a simmering 51 percent from the field and 47 percent from three point range. Team USA posted shooting numbers that have to be considered astronomical even for their lofty standards—60 percent from the field and 46 percent from beyond-the-arc.
The road to redemption surely couldn’t have been traveled without Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James—all three of whom made a plethora of dazzling plays throughout the Olympics to show why they are among the top five basketball players on the planet.

Kobe Bryant, in particular, did an extremely good job of endearing himself to an American public that loved to hate him.  After watching Kobe Bryant hug Dwyane Wade after the post-game interview, how can you not love his genuine desire to restore the glory in USA basketball?
I used to hate Kobe Bryant because I thought he was an arrogant jerk who didn’t care about anybody but himself, but these Olympics helped to show his human side. Kobe had a genuine desire to see the U.S. reclaim their rightful place in the basketball world and for that I will be forever grateful.
You could make the argument that the gold medal in Beijing was bigger than any NBA title ever will be for Kobe, simply because it restored the glory in the initials U-S-A.
This gold medal was Kobe’s NBA championship. He already lost one earlier in the basketball season, and we all know how much Kobe Bryant hates losing. You could see that hatred in the stare down of the Spanish crowd—the intense competitor in Bryant that makes him a shark that will do anything to his opponent in order to win.
In his post-game interview, Bryant said it was time to “let the black mamba loose”. His four-point play was just that—a lethal dose of poison from which the Spaniards could not recover. Kobe averaged over 15 points a game throughout the Olympics and the gold medal couldn’t have been attained without him.
I think you will see that many of the Kobe haters now have a new level of respect for the game’s best player. My feelings towards Kobe will never be the same, like I told a friend, “Me and Kobe are on a new level.”

If you were going to name an MVP of the Olympic games for the “Redeem Team,” you would have to go with Dwyane Wade. Wade once again proved that, when healthy, he is still among the top five players in the world.
Nobody on the planet can hit as many acrobatic shots around the rim as Wade, nobody. He’s so good at controlling his body in the air and his upper-body strength is amazing.
Wade, like Kobe, saved his best performance for when the Americans needed him the most, shooting a scintillating 75 percent from the field in the gold-medal game, including 4-for-7 from three point range.
Wade finished with a game-high 27 points. He led all American scorers with 16 points per game and shot over 45 percent from three-point range during the eight games in the Olympics. The former Marquette star also averaged four rebounds and 2.3 steals per game.
It isn’t any secret why the “Redeem Team” played its best basketball when Dwyane Wade was on the floor—he was their MVP.

The funny thing is this wasn’t a team about one or two individuals. Make no mistake about it folks—this squad played like a team from the start of the games all the way until the end of the gold-medal final. I give Jerry Colangelo and head coach Mike Krzyzewski a lot of credit,, because this team stayed focused on the task at hand and continued to defeat opponents with ease—even when they faced more pressure than anybody else at the Olympics.
The “Redeem Team” is one that will forever be remembered—not only for dominating opponents by an average of over 27 points a game, but restoring the glory of a game that its country so dearly loves.

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