Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Gary Shelton at the Games: U.S. men's basketball team looks Olympian in every way


If you were not a skeptic, and if they were not celebrities, you would have found joy in the moment.

They smiled, and they embraced, and they hopped up and down. They doused their coach with water to celebrate a difficult victory. They draped flags over their shoulders and passed around a stuffed mascot.

If you were not a cynic, and if they were not millionaires, you would have eaten it up.

This is the way Olympic champions celebrate victory, from the field hockey team from Pakistan to the handball team from the Netherlands. This the trophy they have dreamed of above all others, and upon achieving it, they go gloriously goofy with their celebration.

Ah, but this is the United States men's basketball team, and even with gold around their necks, there are those who raise an eyebrow. Look at Kobe Bryant kiss his medal. Look at LeBron James embrace his coach. Look at Carmelo Anthony raise his arms in the air.

This is the Do You Believe Team, that group of NBA stars that is so hard for so many to embrace. They are Mercenaries in Sneakers, and the impression is they coast through the competition on their way to a medal that means a fraction of what it means to other Olympians. To many they are the worst example of the commercialism that has taken over the Games. After all, was it coincidence that Nike picked Sunday afternoon to release LeBron's new sneaker? Of course not.

In the afterglow of a 107-100 victory over Spain, however, the joy seemed real, and the competition seemed authentic and the victory seemed worth celebrating. The United States team struggled mightily for this one, and in its moment of triumph, its members looked as American — and as Olympian — as anyone you might mention.

"There is nothing like playing in the Olympics," said Chris Paul, the Clippers guard. "There is nothing like representing your country. I've played a lot of basketball over the years, but nothing ever compares to this. This was the funnest time of my life."

Still, it is easy to knock the men's basketball team. There are times it seems to be playing Horse, just pulling up and launching long shots. It gives only passing attention to passing and none at all to defense. And it's true: These Americans do not, they can not, care as much about the Olympics as an athlete in a sport where winning a gold medal is the pinnacle of a lifetime.

That said, they care more than you think, and they play harder, and they have invested more time.

And now for the question: Was this team good enough to keep?

The threat is out there. David Stern, the guy who should be leading the charge to keep professionals in the Olympics, keeps mentioning 23-and-under Olympic teams. Every time he mentions it, the feeling is he's in the first stages of a money grab, but it's a real-enough threat to tick off other teams, such as Russia, that don't think the NBA commissioner has the pop to suggest how the tournament should be played.

Besides, what would that cure? Are you going to make the other teams play with 23-and-under teams? How about tennis teams? Or track teams? Or swimming teams? Are we going to turn the entire Olympics into a junior tournament? Of course not.

Here's the reality: When it comes to rich athletes in the Olympics, the paste is out of the tube. There is no going back from here. Nor should there be.

In some ways, this was the potential Death of the Dream Team. The world needed to show it is catching up in basketball; and if Spain is the barometer, it is. The Americans needed to show they care about the Olympics, and they did. They were unbeaten, but they were not unbeatable. For the world, that's good news.

All that talk about the '92 team? Bah. The '92 team would wax this team. For goodness sake, this team was barely good enough to beat the '12 Spain team with the Gasol brothers and a sharpshooter named Juan-Carlos Navarro. Those three players combined for 62 points in the final.

Despite that, most of the star power in the game still belongs to the Americans. Take LeBron, for instance, who keeps proving he's the best player on the planet. This year he is an NBA champion, a league MVP and a gold medalist. Only a handful of players have done that in their career. Two of them are Bill Russell and Michael Jordan. Perhaps you have heard of them.

"He's worthy of joining those two," said U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski. "He's the best player, and the best leader, and he's as smart as anyone playing right now."

There are others. Kevin Durant, who threw in 30 against Spain. Paul, who hit the key buckets down the stretch. Bryant, who seemed to be at every event watching every athlete.

Was it enough to change your impressions? Was it enough to easy your doubts? Most important , was it enough to make you want to watch more of the NBA players in the Olympics?

For a moment, at least, it should have been. There in the afterglow of achievement, they didn't look like spoiled players any more.

For a moment, at least, they looked like Olympians.

in summation

• From the Missile to the Lightning Bolt, these were fine, fun, fabulous Games, Gary Shelton writes. 3A

Around the games

• After three back-and-forth quarters, the U.S. men's basketball team pulls away from Spain for the gold. 8C

Former Clearwater wrestler Jared Frayer's Olympics end after one bout. 6C

• The Games end with British pop and circumstance, and a bit of Brazil. 7C


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