Mike Krzyzewski’s pregame speech didn’t need to echo the heart-pumping intensity of Herb Brooks from 1980’s Miracle on Ice. The shower of motivation didn’t have to come from words, but from the completion of a mission that he and the core group of USA Basketball, which included architect Jerry Colangelo, the world’s most complete player in LeBron James and an elite unit of snipers led by Carmelo Anthony, who came together after the embarrassment in Athens and set forth to not only put this country back on the pedestal as the greatest basketball nation in the world, but also establish the U.S. again as the game’s standard-setter.
This was no longer about competing with the 1992 Dream Team in the hypothetical debate for greatest team of all time, but more about getting back to maintaining the job that team started 20 years ago. Fittingly, their second gold medal, the fifth in six Olympics since Michael, Magic and Larry ascended from the medal stand in Barcelona, came against Spain in a 107-100 win in London.
There was Coach K, with no need to remind anyone of the enormity of the task at hand, instead instilling the confidence in achieving what the world expected.
“You are going to hear the National Anthem twice,” he told them. “Once before the game and once after.
“And I guarantee,” he then added, “you are going to feel chills the second time.”
Tyson Chandler stood on the podium and felt Krzyzewski’s prophetic words come to life.
“As I was standing up there, it literally felt as if somebody was pouring a warm glass of water from the top of my head to my feet,” Chandler said. “I just got chills and goose bumps.”
Carmelo hooted into the air and grabbed an American flag, which he draped around his back and displayed to the world. It was his 67th game playing for USA Basketball on the international level. Though he didn’t have a big scoring performance in the gold medal game (eight points, five rebounds and three assists in 21 foul-plagued minutes), he had another strong Olympic tournament, as he finished second on the team with 16.3 points per game.
He returns to New York with six weeks to go before training camp opens with Knicks fans hoping to see more of the player he was for USA Basketball – accepting a role within the system rather than relying on isolation, playing hard on both ends of the floor and, of course, explosive scoring – when the 2012-13 Knicks take the court. There were reports he was dealing with a sore hamstring late in Olympic play and in the latter stages of the gold medal game, he grabbed his leg and limped a bit, which set off some alarms. But asked afterward how he felt, Melo, with his second gold medal around his neck, was feeling no pain at all.
“I’m in a great place,” he said.
PROUD OR UNIMPRESSED?
Chris Paul described a bittersweetness that set in after winning the gold, because the same guys he played with now go back to being opponents in the NBA. And one issue that came up during these Games, especially after the record-setting 83-point win over Nigeria, was how some U.S.-based fans were turned off by this star-laden team.
Some found it difficult to root for players who were otherwise despised as rivals. Were Cavaliers fans cheering for LeBron? Were Nuggets fans happy for Melo? How did Lakers fans feel about Kobe and Kevin Durant being so chummy? Or Clippers fans feel about Chris Paul and Kobe working so well together? Nets fans had Deron Williams and Melo high-fiving. And Knicks fans had to be so conflicted about respecting just how important LeBron James was to this team’s success and bringing it all together.
But others just can’t accept the idea of professional athletes competing in the Olympics. Nigeria didn’t have a single NBA player and there is a sanctimonious side in some fans who after that game wanted to see the U.S. lose. Imagine that: Rooting against your own country.
That emotion could be understandable in 2004, when that team was so very difficult to like, let alone root for with national pride. There was a reason why Colangelo stepped in and USA Basketball overhauled everything about the program.
But the group that went to Beijing to make it all right again earned the title of Redeem Team because that’s what it did. This group in London earned its own title and it’s much simpler: Team. Considering the bouquet of superstars on this roster, the larger-than-life egos that exist for players of this magnitude, their accomplishments and, not to mention their massive bank accounts, the greatest example this team set was how a team of great individual talent can come together and have success. Let’s hope that comes back with them from London and becomes the new standard on the AAU Basketball circuit.
“I think we proved to the world that we are not just a bunch of individuals, we are a basketball team,” Chandler said. “We fought; we fought hard, and we were able to get the gold.”
Melo added, “For us to persevere the way we did, it’s just a special moment for myself, for the guys that were on this team, for all the work that we put in and the commitment that we made to get where we are right now.”
And for anyone who wants to promote the idea that these players didn’t care about representing their country or being part of the Olympic spirit, you must have missed how often the players, LeBron, Kobe, Melo and all, attended other events at the Games. It was something they started in Beijing and followed up on in London. Were there a host of swimmers and track stars at the gold medal game to cheer on the U.S.?
“There’s nothing like playing in the Olympics,” Paul said. “There’s nothing like representing your country. I’ve played a lot of basketball, just like these other guys, we’ve played a lot of basketball over our careers, but nothing compares to this for this level and for these stakes.”
Ultimately, yes, the allure of playing in the Olympics includes the lust for competition that exists in these players. You don’t get the status of being the world’s best without having an intense competitive gene. It also exists in Spain – how about the game Pau Gasol had? – and Argentina and Lithuania and it’s growing quickly in Russia, where David Blatt has helped resurrect basketball in that country.
In 2004, those other countries did not have more individual talent, but they had a much greater will, a much greater competitive spirit and a much greater respect and understanding of the importance for team play and accepting roles. LeBron and Melo had a front seat to it as young players on that team in Athens. Years later, there’s LeBron, who statistically was nowhere on the Olympic leaderboard in most categories as he is in the NBA, but who proved to be the most important player the team had. There was Melo, who accepted a move to the bench to give way to a younger scorer, Kevin Durant, who played a role Melo might have argued he could have filled. Instead, he became a lethal Sixth Man.
“Everybody on this team is a star on their own team, a star in the league,” said Chandler, the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year who was the starting center and yet played less than 12 minutes a game despite the U.S. having issues with interior defense. “But to come here and everybody buying into the team and accepting their roles has been the most amazing thing to watch.”
These are the examples that had to be set and the attitude permeated within the organization. This is the standard of play that must have have the great Red Holzman giddy in basketball heaven. This had to be what Colangelo and Krzyzewski envisioned when they rebuilt USA Basketball from the ground up on a foundation of this generation’s top players.
“I think between me, Coach K, CP and Melo, we’ve been through it all,” LeBron said. “We were part of the whole rebuilding of the USA team trying to get back to where it was before. I was a part of it in ’04 with me and Melo and that was the lowest point for the USA team. Then Coach K and Jerry took over and then we lost the World Championship in ’06.
“But we made that three-year commitment in ’05 and we just tried to keep getting better each and every summer,” LeBron continued. “We were able to win the Worlds in Las Vegas. We were able to win gold in ’08 and that was a big step for us and four years later, being put in this position once again, we kind of all share the same traits. It’s been a long road for USA Basketball and like I said, I am happy to be in a position where I can say I had something to do with us being back on top.”
Kobe Bryant was visibly emotional – a rarity for him – in the closing moments of the gold medal win as he knew it marked the end of his international career. Melo, as we outlined in the previous Fix, entered the game considering the potential that he, too, may be playing in his final game for USA Basketball. But afterward, the 28-year-old sounded like he wanted in on playing in Rio in 2016.
“I’m still young,” he said.
Though there was some talk about the NBA pushing FIBA to make a 23-and-under rule similar to soccer for the Olympics, it’s at this point only an idea and nothing that would be implemented in time for 2016. So at 32, Melo certainly could make it a fourth Olympic appearance, which is unprecedented in U.S. men’s basketball.
But aside from the younger players, such as rookie Anthony Davis, no one else was ready to talk about making that kind of commitment again.
“I have no idea,” LeBron said of playing in Rio and joining Melo as the only four-time Olympians in U.S. men’s basketball history. “I’m not even thinking about that right now.”
ENRAGED PRIGIONI MISSES MEDAL
Argentina lost a hotly contested battle with an up-and-coming Russian team, 81-77, in the bronze medal game. Knicks guard Pablo Prigioni had three points, seven assists and three steals and chased down a loose ball on the sidelines after a miss by Andres Nocioni in the closing seconds with Argentina trailing 79-77 with nine seconds left.
Typical of international play, there was a lot of contact as players scrambled for the ball and it was knocked away from Prigioni, who temporarily had possession, and went to Russia’s Alexei Shved, who fed Vitaliy Fridzon for a layup to seal Russia’s first Olympic medal in men’s basketball since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Prigioni was incensed with the officials, which included NBA referee Bill Kennedy, for not calling a foul on the play. The generally mild-mannered veteran roared at the referees and kicked a clock off the scorer’s table as the game ended. Prigioni won the bronze medal with his close friend Manu Ginobili and Argentina in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but this time the Argentines left medal-less, which was difficult for this proud group to accept.
“The pain and sadness I feel I don’t wish on anyone!” Prigioni wrote on his Twitter account (in Spanish). “I’d prefer 10 kidney stones!”
Prigioni missed two games in pool play because of kidney stones. For anyone who has ever experienced it, you can understand the level of Prigioni’s emotions.
Prigioni, 35, a former Spanish Supercup MVP, gave us a glimpse of what he can bring to the Knicks this season, as he led Olympic play with 6.5 assists per game and was fourth in steals at 1.8 per game. Though Ginobili mostly dominated the ball on offense, Prigioni, in 27:57 minutes per game, kept his turnovers to a minimum at 2.16 per game.
He held his own in one-on-one defense, but struggled getting through screens and often went under, which allowed players such as Shved the room to shoot from the outside.
Speaking of shooting, Prigioni is a pass-first point guard for a reason. He made just 34.7 percent of his field goals in the tournament, including a frigid 4-for-17 (23.5 percent) from that short three-point line. With Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd on the roster, Prigioni’s role remains to be seen inMike Woodson’s rotation. But for insurance at the point guard spot, he appears to be a good piece at a minimum cost.