BEIJING — The most important part came afterward. After the survival. After the midcourt celebration. After they joined arms and stepped forward as one. After the gold medals had been slipped around their necks and the national anthem played and the American flag rose between two others. You always want yours in the middle. It’s where the winner resides.
After the journey back to the top of the basketball world was complete.
"The best thing is," said Jerry Colangelo, Team USA managing director and architect of returning America to Olympic basketball prominence, "that, unsolicited, five or six of these guys have already told me they want to be a part of what we do going forward."
He didn’t mention which ones, but you can guess on some. Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd won’t return, because four more years on aging legs would be too much to ask. But others aren’t as obvious.
If how the Americans acted after their 118-107 victory over Spain on Sunday — with genuine happiness, as if the weight of China had been lifted from their shoulders — then you have to believe the pressure now only intensifies for those who follow.
The proof is in the gold.
"This is a testament to the system Mr. Colangelo put in place," Bryant said. "Everyone wants to talk about NBA players being selfish and arrogant and being individuals. What you saw today was a team binding together and facing adversity and coming out with a big win."
It’s not just one game. It was the entire Olympic run. Bryant is correct about the perception many hold of NBA players, and it’s not as if several of the multi-millionaires haven’t over time done their best to confirm such a negative view.
But for all the truth about how their egos are just slightly smaller than the number of volunteers wandering around Beijing the last few weeks, the 12 on this team handled themselves as well or better than any athletes from any nation.
Think what you want about NBA stars. It’s not hard for selfish people to act kind when it plays to their advantage. But whether its behavior here was authentic or manufactured, how Team USA embraced the experience and other athletes and the hordes of fans that followed its every move set a standard future American rosters must meet or look worse for it.
"They took it very seriously," Spain forward Pau Gasol said. "You could see they were hungry, that they wanted badly to get back to the top. They gave off a better feeling of a team this time and not just individual talent. They proved they should be at the top, but had to work for it."
It’s better that way. It only offered more evidence that Colangelo crafted the perfect blueprint. Had it not been in place, the U.S. would have surely cracked late in Sunday’s game.
The Americans wouldn’t have won if not for Colangelo’s demand that anyone wanting a red, white and blue jersey had to commit to a three-year journey, that parts of their summers would be spent training in Las Vegas instead of lying on exotic beaches. They wouldn’t have outlasted a terrific Spain team without the toughness found in a vow of cohesiveness.
Change is inevitable. Mike Krzyzewski didn’t have to accept the role of head coach, but did and can he now return to Duke with a different kind of championship on his resume. Some might believe LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade are also done with the international scene, but if China’s enthusiasm for basketball showed those U.S. stars anything, it is the immense possibility for global marketing opportunities.
This was the Redeem Team, the group that would erase an embarrassing bronze-medal showing in Athens four years ago for how the Americans played and acted. That’s what made their postgame celebration so telling Sunday. It had the feel of a state high school title. Of a national championship in college basketball.
We hardly ever see NBA players animated in such a sincere way. You can’t fake that kind of joy. They completely bought in and it paid off.
The American flag rose in the middle and U.S. basketball was golden again.
"Thinking back to 2004 now, it was a blessing in disguise," said Anthony, who along with Wade and James and Carlos Boozer were holdovers from that forgettable time. "We were at the lowest point in American (basketball). To be here now, back on top of the world … I think we did a hell of a job getting American basketball back where it belongs."
The best part: They did it the right way.
Now the pressure shifts to those who come next.
Tough act to follow, this.
Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 or firstname.lastname@example.org.