Sweet Redemption

By embracing a collegiate approach and putting the team first, the U.S. made up for eight years of frustration—and reclaimed gold
August 31, 2008

PEOPLE WILL trotout school as a verb in the aftermath of the U.S.'s run through the men'sbasketball field in Beijing, where the Redeem Team went 8--0 and reclaimedOlympic gold with a 118--107 defeat of Spain on Sunday. The Americans schooledthe world, winning by an average of almost 30 points. But it was the spirit ofschool as a noun—Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and his ability to sell a collegeatmosphere to a bunch of NBA stars—that returned the U.S. to the top of theglobal basketball heap.

Only one player onthe American team, reserve forward Tayshaun Prince, logged four years ofcollege ball, and three—guard Kobe Bryant, forward LeBron James and centerDwight 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 WestPoint grad, introduced some college-style bonding. He took his team to militarybases and brought wounded vets in to speak. He led boat tours to Ellis Islandand the Statue of Liberty. The parallels to university life only multipliedupon the team's arrival in Beijing. "When we're at the Olympic Village, Itell the guys that it reminds me of dorms," guard Chris Paul said lastweek. "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 readingTAKE NOTHING FOR GRANTED and WE ARE 0--0. Like a rush chair, Coach K got hismen to pledge USA.

After failures atthe 2002 world championships and the '04 Olympics, national team managingdirector Jerry Colangelo received three-year commitments from a pool ofplayers, 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 straightpick-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 togetherlong enough. Did we know as much then as we do now? No. Just as a freshman incollege doesn't know as much as a junior or senior."

To extend thecollegiate 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 dozensports at the Games, including men's and women's soccer, swimming and beachvolleyball. He even upbraided members of the press who snickered when Bryantsaid he regretted missing synchronized swimming. "Y'all laughing?" hesaid. "I'm dead-ass serious. That's probably the hardest sport I've everseen."

Bryant & Co.hung out in the Village. They caught a traveling exhibition of terra cottawarriors. And they haunted the pool deck at the Water Cube, lending support tothe hoopheads who populate the U.S. swimming team. When Michael Phelps returnedthe favor, dropping by the locker room following a preliminary-round victoryover Germany, he found James wearing goggles, with his feet in a tub of icewater. "That all you got?" said Phelps, proving to be as quick on landas in the water. "An ice bucket—and you've only got your feet init?"

The players'well-rounded Olympic experience lent them vital perspective. "They playlike a team," said Lithuania assistant coach Rimas Kurtinaitis, who helpedshoot 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 intheir rooms. But if they are serious, for sure they are the strongestteam."

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 madeadjustments, taking better care of the ball, so the Americans deliveredheartbreak in a different fashion. Pity Spanish coach Aíto García Reneses, whohad to go into the locker room at halftime and explain to his team—after it hadshot 61.2% from the floor, outrebounded the U.S. 14--12 and had sunk five ofeight three-pointers and 18 of 21 free throws—why it trailed by eight.

But after forwardCarlos 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 togetherfor three years, we might have cracked," Colangelo would say later."Our instincts might have been to go one-on-one."

Instead, Bryanttreated the Spaniards as if they'd spoken ill of synchro. Early in the Olympicshe had talked about "letting the Mamba out of the cage," and down thestretch the door came unlatched. Bryant had already delivered a four-point playthat fouled out sublime Spanish guard Rudy Fernàndez; here Bryant hit a hangerin the lane that spurred the U.S. to an unassailable lead. "Everyone wantsto talk about NBA players being selfish and arrogant," he said afterward."What you saw today was a team bonding together in the face ofadversity."

Indeed, theAmericans seemed to have sprung whole from the front of a Wheaties box. It wasSpain that posed for an offensive advertisement pre-Games, with eyes pullednarrow in twisted homage to their Chinese hosts, and los Rojos who lost theirheads with two late technicals. In the fog of the '06 loss to Greece, afterKrzyzewski had spoken numbly of how "number 4" had done this to histeam 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 wantedto stick a dagger in my heart." But he understood the importance ofperception and in Beijing spent three weeks paying respect to the rest of theworld. "REE-us—am I pronouncing that correctly?—had a great game againstus," Krzyzewski said on Sunday. (It's actually RAY-us, as in center FelipeReyes, but it's the thought that counts.)

Coach K alsobristles at the suggestion that the '06 team took things lightly, insistingthat it just wasn't up to the task. "It's perfectly fine to say you're notgood enough," he says. "The question is, What do you do to be goodenough?" At practice the day before the gold medal game Krzyzewski wasasked if he thought his team was now good enough to win the gold. "I thinkwe're humble enough to do it," he replied.

Which brought upanother question. What if, despite the overhauled culture and three-yeareffort, some country had thrown up a barricade along the U.S.'s ballyhooed Roadto Redemption? What if it hadn't been enough to have Old Glory stand in for OldSiwash? What would Plan B have been? On the eve of the medal round Colangeloconsidered the question. "I guess if the worst scenario were totranspire," he said, "you'd do the same things, only better."

If that's indeedtrue, the Redeem Team didn't just earn its degree in Beijing. It graduatedsumma cum laude.

Coach K got his men TO PLEDGE USA.


ONLINE > Get a complete wrap-up fromBeijing—including favorite memories from SI's staff in China, the best photosfrom the Games and a video of Heinz Kleutmeier's images of Michael Phelps.

PHOTOPhotograph by Bob RosatoTHE STARS ALIGNED LeBron James (6) led his fellow NBA luminaries in celebration after the final victory over a surprisingly persistent Spain. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (BRYANT) SNAKE'SALIVE! Bryant (right), who brought out the Mamba when it mattered most, boughtinto the notions that Krzyzewski (above) espoused about experiencing theGames. PHOTOPhotograph by Bob Rosato[See caption above]

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)