Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Redeem Team Wins Gold; The U.S. Olympic basketball team is the bestin the world.

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IF YOU WEREN'T overcome with excitement as the American basketball team won the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, you should have been. The Americans played as spectacular a brand of basketball as the world has ever seen--and played it at breakneck speed. So the question now is: Who was better, the Dream Team of 1992 or the Redeem Team of 2008?

I'm going with the Redeemers. Yes, the Dream Team had Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Charles Barkley, and routed its opponents by an average of more than 40 points a game. At the time, the Dreamers were the best basketball team ever to take the court.

But there's one huge difference between 1992 and 2008. And it's this: The Redeem Team faced far tougher competition. The level of basketball played around the world has risen dramatically. There are very few patsies. The players are bigger, faster, and more athletic. They dunk like Americans. Teams like Spain's and Argentina's don't have just two or three world-class players. They have eight or 10. Yet the Americans won.

The Redeem Team consisted mainly of young players, half of them in their early 20s. Wait a decade and three or four of them will be judged the equals of the Michaels and Magics and Birds. I'm talking about Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Dwayne Wade, and maybe Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul as well.

This was a wonderful team to watch, especially when Bryant, James, Wade, Paul, and Chris Bosh were on the court together. And don't forget that most of the players are millionaire superstars in the NBA who've often been accused of being selfish and aloof. In Beijing, they were team-oriented, emotional, and surprisingly humble. If you're an American basketball fan, you had to love them.

Here are five things, in no particular order, that I loved about the Redeem Team:

* Their patriotism. In nearly every interview, James and Bryant said how proud they were to be representing America. ames said winning the gold for his country was the greatest thing he'd ever experienced. Interviewed after the U.S. had knocked off Spain yesterday to win the championship, Wade said the team was determined to play well because of the letters on their jerseys--USA. He shook his shirt as he said this. When the "Star Spangled Banner" was played after the players were awarded their medals, all 12 players held their right hands over their hearts.

* Clutch play. We knew the Americans could win blowouts, and indeed most of the games were decided early. When the Redeem Team led Argentina by 20 points in the first quarter, you knew the outcome was not in doubt. The defeat of Spain was different. It proved the team could withstand pressure from an inspired opponent and win. The Americans led Spain by only 2 points in the fourth quarter and the momentum was with the Spaniards. But after a timeout, the Redeemers steadied themselves. They refused to panic. And Bryant then took over the game.

* Teamwork and talent. When American teams lost in the 2004 Olympics and in international competition since then, they were beaten by better teamwork. The foreigners passed more crisply, shot the 3-pointer better, and didn't rely on one or two players to make highlight-reel moves. Nobody hogged the ball. Wade said winning the gold showed that NBA stars could play with that same level of teamwork. They unquestionably did. But they also showed that talent matters and that there's a time for great individual players to call for the ball and carry their team to victory, as Bryant did to turn back Spain. Teamwork matters, but superstar talent matters too.

* Inspired picks. I had my doubts about some of the players chosen for the Redeem Team. Chris Bosh was awfully scrawny to match up against the brutal big men of European and South American teams. But he played brilliantly. I wasn't sure about Chris Paul at point guard either. Turns he's a world-class player. Both he and Bosh played only one year of college ball. Paul is 23, Bosh 24.

* Coaching. The hardest thing to get great basketball players to do--especially rich NBA stars--is play defense. Yet Coach Mike Krzyzewski got the team to do just that. The American guards terrorized their opponents and forced turnover after turnover, which led to fast breaks and easy baskets. Doug Collins, the announcer who played on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team and coached in the NBA, said the Americans greatest advantage was the play of its guards. Coach K wisely let James emerge as the team leader who did much of the talking during timeouts and huddles.

Two more thoughts. My son Freddy and I have argued for several years over who's the best basketball player in the world. He said Kobe, I said Lebron. After watching Kobe almost singlehandedly stop Spain's surge yesterday, I now concede. The best player in the world is Kobe. Finally, this question: Would the Redeem Team beat the Dream Team? Absolutely. Great as they were, Michael, Magic, Larry and their teammates were relatively old players. They couldn't have kept up with the younger, faster Redeem Team for 40 minutes. No way.

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