USA Basketball: Mission accomplished


I get a flashback to the jingoistic 1980s every time I hear that chant, a simpler time when Arnold Schwarzenegger destroyed entire Central American armies by himself, Sly Stallone beat up genetically-engineered super men and our Cold War foes were so inept they couldn’t even root out a guerilla force including Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen and a couple of teenage girls.

On Sunday, the superheroes who elicited those calls were LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant, swooping past Spain to help the USA win its second straight Olympic gold medal and cement America’s rightful place atop the basketball universe.

It wasn’t easy. The Spaniards didn’t relent until the very end, when the USA’s star power finally wore them down for a 107-100 victory. But then, neither was the journey that preceded it.

That’s how it might look on paper. The USA has won 50 straight games since 2006, including the last three major championships, and 62 of 63 since it finally started taking international competition seriously again in 2005.

But before then, USA Basketball had hit rock bottom with the debacle that was the 2004 Olympics. Not even Tim Duncan, the flag bearer of all that was good and pure about professional sports, could stave off an embarrassing bronze-medal finish that seemed to symbolize American basketball’s descent into one-on-one selfishness.

At least, that’s how it was viewed around the world as Argentina, Lithuania, even Puerto Rico – Puerto Rico?!? – figured out how to beat the Americans at their own game with smooth, seamless teamwork.

Turns out those losses, as well as the ones that preceded at the 2002 World Championships, were blessings in disguise. Jerry Colangelo took over as head of USA Basketball in 2005, implementing a renewed vigor for an organization that had grown flabby and lackadaisical.

While those changes didn’t take root immediately – the USA was forced to endure one more upset, getting pick-and-rolled out of the 2006 Worlds by Greece – the foundation was laid.

Nothing’s ever going to change the individual nature of American basketball because, hey, how dumb would it be not to give the ball to players like LeBron and Durant and let them unleash their prodigious talents?

But anybody who saw the joy with which the USA celebrated its second straight gold medal had all the proof necessary that a major facelift had been successfully undertaken.

More than a collection of ridiculously talented pieces, this truly was a team.

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