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|For Jason Kidd, Team USA's oldest player, and LeBron James and Chris Paul, two of its youngest, Sunday's victory was the culmination of years of work toward redemption for the U.S. and the NBA.|
BEIJING -- "That'll probably go down as one of the greatest Olympic games ever," LeBron James said after Team USA's thrilling 118-107 victory over Spain earned it the gold medal Sunday.
The moment he received his medal, James reached down, grabbed it and stared at it. He held it inches from his eyes and just gazed at it, transfixed. And when they handed him a bouquet of red roses, he held them to his nose and inhaled two huge breaths, the sweet smell of victory filling his nostrils and lungs.
Carmelo Anthony wiped a tear from his right eye as they raised the American flag above the court and played the U.S. national anthem, and Kobe Bryant sang along as James stood nearby, stone-faced, his right hand on his heart.
Moments earlier, the American players had locked arms and stepped onto the medal podium as one, then raised their arms in unison toward the American fans who had hung a U.S. flag over the railing in the upper deck.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski later blew kisses to that same group of fans before nearly all the American players took the medals off their own necks and hung them around his neck. They then draped their medals around the neck of USA Basketball director Jerry Colangelo, then did the same to the three assistant coaches: Jim Boeheim, Mike D'Antoni and Nate McMillan.
It was an overwhelming sight to behold, the possession of those gold medals made so much more fulfilling because of what had transpired on the court for 40 immensely entertaining minutes. The members of Team USA didn't just win their gold medals, they earned them against the first opponent that finally gave them a game.
They didn't dominate in the final game; they performed. They didn't nearly blow it; they closed it out.
And when all the members of Team USA sat together after taking over that podium, their faces showed pure, unadulterated pride and gratification -- a gratification that wouldn't have been nearly as strong if they hadn't had to face such a tough final test and pass it with flying colors.
"What you saw today was a team bonding together, facing adversity and coming out with a huge win," Bryant said.
Said James: "If it wasn't for the determination and willpower we had, we wouldn't be back on top of the world, which is where we are."
Here's what it looked like once the outcome of this compelling game was finally sealed, after Spain's Ricky Rubio was called for a technical foul with 26 seconds left to give the Americans two extra free throws and end all doubt:
With the final seconds ticking off, Jason Kidd and Coach K jumped into each other's arms, embracing and spinning in a circle. James and Anthony joined the crowd in a chant of "U-S-A, U-S-A!" before James started a procession of American players who hopped over the barrier near center court and embraced NBC commentator Doug Collins, one of the 12 members of the 1972 U.S. team that felt cheated of a gold medal at the Munich Games. (To this day, the team's silver medals still sit in a vault in Geneva after the Americans refused to accept them.) And finally, as the Americans exited the court to wait for the medal ceremony to begin, Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." blared from the public address system.
This was a game Team USA couldn't easily wrap up, an offensive show by both teams in which Spain kept coming back and kept hanging around, refusing to go down as meekly as every other opponent Team USA had faced each of the past two summers.
Pau Gasol hit a jumper to make it 104-99 with 3:34 left before Bryant had his biggest play of the tournament. He took a drive-and-kick pass from Dwyane Wade (who was phenomenal with 27 points and four steals) and nailed a 3-pointer as he drew the fifth foul on Spain's Rudy Fernandez (who was spectacular in his own right with 22 points and five 3s), then converted the four-point play.
Juan Carlos Navarro hit a floater, Bryant missed a long 3 with six seconds left on the shot clock, and Carlos Jimenez knocked down a 3 from the corner to make it a four-point game again.
Then came the killer.
Wade made it, drilling a 3 off a pass from James for a seven-point lead with 2:04 left. The Americans scored on their next two possessions, a drive to the hole by Bryant and a pair of clutch free throws by Chris Paul with 48 seconds left to make it a 10-point game.
It was over. The emotion started spilling out, and it never ceased.
Many of the Americans had flags draped over their shoulders and around their waists as they paraded 12 strong into the interview room, sliding behind the long table that served as a podium, not realizing the microphones were picking up what they were saying.
"I'm oldest. I get to sit down," Kidd said, surveying the seven chairs for 13 bodies.
"You may not want to sit next to me, I smell like s---," Coach K said as he seated James to his right and Bryant to his left.
Krzyzewski then spoke to the audience: "We played with great character in one of the great games in international basketball history. Spain was fabulous, we couldn't stop them completely. Everyone played at the highest level, and it brought out the best in us -- and we're ecstatic, just ecstatic."
Anthony, who along with Wade, James and Carlos Boozer were the only returnees from the 2004 U.S. Olympic team, summed it up: "We were at America's lowest point in '04, and to have put USA Basketball back at the top of the world, it couldn't feel better."
You can make the argument that this was the biggest win in U.S. Olympic men's basketball history, given where the program has been in recent years after sitting on top of the world for so long.
Think about it:
2004: Played for bronze.
2000: Crushed France, but was expected to crush everybody.
1996: Did what was expected of it.
1992: Crushed everybody, erased years of national frustration, but didn't play a single tough game.
1984: Won, but didn't play the USSR because of a boycott.
1980: Didn't play (the U.S. boycotted over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan).
1976: Beat Yugoslavia, but didn't get to play the opponent it wanted to play: the USSR.
1972: Lost to the Soviets in the aforementioned controversial final.
1968: Won, just as the Americans had done in every single Olympics since the 1936 team defeated Canada 19-8 in the rain on a court made of sand and clay that turned into mud.
The 2008 team was a Redeem Team in every sense, and the sights and sounds of that redemption -- both during the game and after it -- will last each of them a lifetime.
Chris Sheridan is an ESPN.com Insider. He has covered the U.S. senior national team since the 1996 Olympics. To e-mail Chris, click here.