People will trot out school as a verb in the aftermath of the U.S.'s run through the men's basketball field in Beijing, where the Redeem Team went 8–0 and reclaimed Olympic gold with a 118–107 defeat of Spain on Sunday. The Americans schooled the world, winning by an average of almost 30 points. But it was the spirit of school as a noun—Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and his ability to sell a college atmosphere to a bunch of NBA stars—that returned the U.S. to the top of the global basketball heap.
Only one player on the American team, reserve forward Tayshaun Prince, logged four years of college ball, and three—guard Kobe Bryant, forward LeBron James and center Dwight 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 West Point grad, introduced some college-style bonding. He took his team to military bases and brought wounded vets in to speak. He led boat tours to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The parallels to university life only multiplied upon the team's arrival in Beijing. "When we're at the Olympic Village, I tell the guys that it reminds me of dorms," guard Chris Paul said last week. "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 reading TAKE NOTHING FOR GRANTED and WE ARE 0–0. Like a rush chair, Coach K got his men to pledge USA.
After failures at the 2002 world championships and the '04 Olympics, national team managing director Jerry Colangelo received three-year commitments from a pool of players, 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 straight pick-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 together long enough. Did we know as much then as we do now? No. Just as a freshman in college doesn't know as much as a junior or senior."
To extend the collegiate 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 dozen sports at the Games, including men's and women's soccer, swimming and beach volleyball. He even upbraided members of the press who snickered when Bryant said he regretted missing synchronized swimming. "Y'all laughing?" he said. "I'm dead-ass serious. That's probably the hardest sport I've ever seen."
Bryant & Co.hung out in the Village. They caught a traveling exhibition of terra cotta warriors. And they haunted the pool deck at the Water Cube, lending support to the hoopheads who populate the U.S. swimming team. When Michael Phelps returned the favor, dropping by the locker room following a preliminary-round victory over Germany, he found James wearing goggles, with his feet in a tub of ice water. "That all you got?" said Phelps, proving to be as quick on land as in the water. "An ice bucket—and you've only got your feet in it?"
The players' well-rounded Olympic experience lent them vital perspective. "They play like a team," said Lithuania assistant coach Rimas Kurtinaitis, who helped shoot 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 in their rooms. But if they are serious, for sure they are the strongest team."
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 made adjustments, taking better care of the ball, so the Americans delivered heartbreak in a different fashion. Pity Spanish coach Aíto García Reneses, who had to go into the locker room at halftime and explain to his team—after it had shot 61.2% from the floor, out rebounded the U.S. 14–12 and had sunk five of eight three-pointers and 18 of 21 free throws—why it trailed by eight.
But after forward Carlos 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 together for three years, we might have cracked," Colangelo would say later. "Our instincts might have been to go one-on-one."
Instead, Bryant treated the Spaniards as if they'd spoken ill of synchro. Early in the Olympics he had talked about "letting the Mamba out of the cage," and down the stretch the door came unlatched. Bryant had already delivered a four-point play that fouled out sublime Spanish guard Rudy Fernàndez; here Bryant hit a hanger in the lane that spurred the U.S. to an unassailable lead. "Everyone wants to talk about NBA players being selfish and arrogant," he said afterward. "What you saw today was a team bonding together in the face of adversity."
Indeed, the Americans seemed to have sprung whole from the front of a Wheaties box. It was Spain that posed for an offensive advertisement pre-Games, with eyes pulled narrow in twisted homage to their Chinese hosts, and los Rojos who lost their heads with two late technicals. In the fog of the '06 loss to Greece, after Krzyzewski had spoken numbly of how "number 4" had done this to his team 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 wanted to stick a dagger in my heart." But he understood the importance of perception and in Beijing spent three weeks paying respect to the rest of the world. "REE-us—am I pronouncing that correctly?—had a great game against us," Krzyzewski said on Sunday. (It's actually RAY-us, as in center Felipe Reyes, but it's the thought that counts.)
Coach K also bristles at the suggestion that the '06 team took things lightly, insisting that it just wasn't up to the task. "It's perfectly fine to say you're not good enough," he says. "The question is, What do you do to be good enough?" At practice the day before the gold medal game Krzyzewski was asked if he thought his team was now good enough to win the gold. "I think we're humble enough to do it," he replied.
Which brought up another question. What if, despite the overhauled culture and three-year effort, some country had thrown up a barricade along the U.S.'s ballyhooed Road to Redemption? What if it hadn't been enough to have Old Glory stand in for Old Siwash? What would Plan B have been? On the eve of the medal round Colangelo considered the question. "I guess if the worst scenario were to transpire," he said, "you'd do the same things, only better."
If that's indeed true, the Redeem Team didn't just earn its degree in Beijing. It graduated summa cum laude.
Coach K got his men TO PLEDGE USA.