LONDON – Anyone who thinks NBA players don’t care much about winning an Olympic gold medal didn’t see the U.S. superstars dancing in a circle carrying a stuffed Olympic mascot Sunday afternoon and then parading around the court with American flags fluttering off their shoulders like capes. Their smiles were genuine, their pride was obvious, and their relief was very real.
They had just staved off Spain 107-100 in a game reminiscent of the 2008 Beijing final, a thrilling shootout which the U.S. won 118-107. The Spaniards had closed to within four points in the last three minutes of that game, and pulled to within six with 3:20 to go on Sunday before a Lebron James dunk and three-pointer gave the Americans a bit of breathing room.
The Miami Heat forward finished with 19 points, seven rebounds, and four assists. But more important, his clutch performance capped one of the greatest individual seasons in basketball history. He and Michael Jordan are the only two players ever to win NBA Most Valuable Player, an NBA title, Finals Most Valuable Player and Olympic gold medal all in the same year.
He was the undisputed leader of this Olympic team, at the heart of every late-game surge. He even took charge of the final duty on the championship night: Dousing Coach Mike Krzyzewski with Gatorade. James and the coach shared a long embrace during the post-game celebration.
“I’ve been with LeBron since ’06 and I’ve seen him grow immensely,’’ said Krzyzewski. “He’s the best player, the best leader, as smart as anyone playing the game today. I rely on him to be that for me. He made two big plays, smart plays with four fouls. I didn’t realize it was him dousing me until I turned around, but it was a great moment. What a year he’s had.’’
Added Jerry Colangelo, chairman of USA Basketball: “LeBron has shown an incredible amount of growth, as a person, as a player and as a leader. It has all come because of what has transpired in his life. Winning an NBA championship in Miami was huge. But he also knew that this was big for him and his legacy and he seized the opportunity. He wasn't going to let it go because he had a lot riding on this.’’
James allowed himself to absorb the achievement.
“It’s been a great run for me,’’ he said. “I couldn’t have scripted it any better. I had many dreams of winning the NBA championship and following it up with a gold medal. I’m fortunate enough to be in this position and to do this for our country.’’
James found himself on the bench for four minutes of the fourth quarter after picking up a fourth foul by accidentally poking Pau Gasol in the eye. When he returned to the game, he drove into the lane off Kevin Love's pick and dunked for a 99-91 lead with 2:49 left. His three-pointer on the next possession gave the U.S. a 102-93 cushion with 1:59 to go.
A minute later, Krzyzewski emptied the bench and the hugging began.
“I wasn’t going to end with four fouls, so when I got back into the game, I wanted to be aggressive,’’ James said. “This was a long journey. I was there in ’04, the low point, and have been part of the rebuild. I’m happy to say I had something to do with getting USA Basketball back on top, where it was before.’’