LONDON -- You see the back-to-back Olympic gold medals, the 50 straight Team USA victories in international play the past six years. You see the return to dominance of the United States in men's basketball and it's easy to forget how depressingly far down the program was in 2004, when the Americans lost three times in the Athens Olympics, and in 2006, when the U.S. lost to Greece.
LeBron James didn't forget. He was on those teams that lost, that were humiliated. But Jerry Colangelo and then Mike Krzyzewski told LeBron that Team USA needed him to be part of the country's effort to reclaim international basketball. "It was the lowest point, 2004 a long road," LeBron said Sunday, eight years -- and basketball light-years -- later. "I'm happy to be able to say I was a part of us being able to get back on top."
As good as the U.S. is again -- remember, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh and Derrick Rose are injured and didn't come to London -- it's easy to make the argument that the road back might have hit a U-turn if LeBron hadn't gone all-in. And not just because he scored 19 points, grabbed seven rebounds and handed out a team-high four assists in 30 foul-plagued minutes. Kevin Durant had more points (30) and rebounds (nine) and Kobe Bryant had a nice all-around game; both were needed in Team USA's 107-100 victory over Spain.
But LeBron, along with Carmelo Anthony, figured so heavily in the bigger picture of re-establishing U.S. basketball, both on the court and as a brand. Anthony recalled Sunday how the two stood on the court by themselves after losing to Greece in the World Championships in Japan on Sept. 1, 2006, watching Greece advance and celebrate at their expense.
"Coach K had already sat us down and we talked for hours, I think it was in Las Vegas," Anthony said. "He said the rebuild was going to be a long journey, but a fun journey, and that we should try to block out 2004 if we remembered it at all, let it motivate us. [Losing to Greece] was such a bad feeling. We talked again as soon as we got back to the States, and I asked LeBron, 'Are you locked in?' And he said, 'I can't help but be locked in.' We lost in '06, but we knew we'd started something."
That '04 team played poorly and was perceived poorly, from the moment Team USA lost an early game to Puerto Rico by 19 points. It was said the members of that team weren't appreciative, that they didn't conduct themselves well, didn't know what it meant to be an Olympian. Many of the accusations were lies; the problem was the two most prominent members of that team, veterans Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury, came with years of baggage, and no matter how hard they played or engaged with people, they were going to be seen as trouble.
LeBron, who was 19 at the time, was part of an absurdly young team, which included Anthony (who was 20), Emeka Okafor (21), Amare Stoudemire (21) and Wade (22). Asked about the '04 Olympic team Sunday, LeBron said in as diplomatic a way as possible, "There was a different attitude on that team towards the game and what it meant. We were just putting on the uniform and thought that two or three weeks of practice was going to" enable the U.S. to walk out and beat the best international teams.
Colangelo, the director of USA Basketball, was less diplomatic when he said of the youngsters, "They probably shouldn't have been there. They weren't quite ready and didn't yet deserve it."
But Colangelo and Coach K knew several of those players would deserve the honor in time and would be ready to assume the responsibility, starting with LeBron, who said Sunday, "Coach K went to Melo, D-Wade and me and said, 'I need you to make a commitment to figuring out a way to get USA Basketball back on top.'"
Fast-forward to Sunday in London as James, despite four fouls, was there to get into the lane for a dunk that put the U.S. ahead 99-91. After Spain had cut the deficit to six again, LeBron fired the 3-pointer that made it 102-93 to essentially put away the game. In less than two months, he led one team to the NBA championship, another to Olympic gold. Throw in that he won the NBA's regular-season MVP, and LeBron James becomes only the second player in history to do that. The other is Michael Jordan.
"I'm fortunate," LeBron said, "to have been on two great teams. I don't take anything for granted."
But those teams -- both of them -- are great only because he's on them. I'm not certain that without LeBron, even with Durant and Kobe firing and Chris Paul making a couple of huge baskets down the stretch, that the U.S. holds off Spain especially since Coach K's decision to "go small" means that LeBron's size (6-foot-8, 260 pounds) makes him a "big." The team's only true center, Tyson Chandler, recorded just two points and one rebound in less than nine minutes of playing time.
Asked whether the U.S. small ball will influence international play, Colangelo said after the game, "As the big man fades into the sunset around the world, there won't be any other choice."
It's hard to build any case other than that James is the best player in the world today. Bryant may be the best closer, and he may have one more championship thrust in him and can still dominate a game, but at 33 with 16 seasons of wear and tear, dominating night-in, night-out for an entire season like he did in his prime would be silly to even try. LeBron, at 27, can.
And what now makes him better than ever is that he's unburdened, sort of like Jordan was after he won his second NBA title, at the age of 28. Colangelo noted "the incredible amount of growth as a person, player and leader" LeBron has exhibited. "Winning his first NBA championship was big," Colangelo said. "But he knew this was big for him and his legacy."
There was no sense in any of the players on this team talking about whether they would play in Brazil in four years. Kobe won't and has said so. He'll be 37 with 20 NBA seasons of wear and tear. LeBron will have 13 seasons by then. Maybe LeBron will be passing the baton to Durant, who'll be only 27, or Anthony Davis, who'll be only 23. Durant started off the summer "passing up [open 3-point shots], taking extra dribbles and I was messing up the offense."
Now, Durant appears to be all-in as LeBron and Anthony were in 2004. And they had to be because Spain, with the Gasol brothers pouring in 41 points, Serge Ibaka getting 12 points and nine rebounds and Juan Carlos Navarro getting 21 points, is the second-best team in the world. The U.S. is better but not so much better that the Americans can be off-form and still win a game with such high stakes. Team USA beat Spain by 11 in 2008 in Beijing (though it was a two-point game with four minutes to play) and by seven this time. The only thing that might get a raised eyebrow out of LeBron from Sunday's performance was seeing Pau Gasol, rejuvenated now that he knows he's going to be a Laker for another run at a championship, get 24 points, eight rebounds and seven assists (with only one turnover) in the gold-medal game.
But LeBron, not Pau and not Kobe and not Durant, leads the defending champs of the league and of the world. When somebody asked him about joining Jordan in the history books and about playing for two such teams in one season, James allowed himself the tiniest of smiles and said, "I've had a pretty good run."