There is a unique kind of stress on the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team, a stress not even Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt can truly identify with. For, the United States team is not only expected to win every time it steps on the floor, it is expected to dazzle, to play with ease and flair, to prove superhuman, soar high, and dunk often.
Anything less, and fans feel cheated.
In other words, the Americans are under pressure to entertain like the Harlem Globetrotters and at the same time get past world-class Olympians from other countries who want nothing more than to topple them.
That certainly was the case Sunday afternoon. A sold-out crowd of 8,989, many of them curious Londoners who had never seen the NBA up close, was buzzing before the Americans’ opener against France. When the U.S. team walked out of the locker room singing for pregame warm-ups, fans captured the moment with their cellphones. The opposing French team included five NBA players who were not in awe, but other players couldn’t help but stare at the American stars.
There was so much curiosity surrounding this team that the gigantic arena press section was completely full 40 minutes before the game, leaving many American journalists without seats.
The team didn’t disappoint. Although the game started off sloppy, the United States lived up to its reputation and was never really troubled during its 98-71 victory. First Lady Michelle Obama congratulated each player with a hug as the team walked off the court, and the Londoners went home with memories they will not soon forget.It was clear long before tip-off that this team is saddled with enormous expectations.
When the collection of NBA superstars walked into an interview room at the press center on Friday afternoon, reporters from all over the world nearly trampled each other to get their microphones close to LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
“This is more physical than our games,” Bryant joked. “This right here is crazy. I’ve seen at least two flagrant fouls.”
The team’s mood stayed loose through Sunday’s warm-ups, but once the whistle blew, the Americans knew they had a job to do and a worldwide legion of fans to entertain. They dazzled, and they clamped down when they had to.
Kevin Durant scored 22 points, LeBron James had a game-high eight assists in 24 minutes and the United States overcame foul troubles and ragged play early on. The French team trailed by just one after the first quarter.
But the Americans proved too powerful, and France hurt itself with 2-of-22 shooting from three-point range. The one-point lead opened to a 16-point lead by halftime, and the United States led by as many as 29 in the final minutes.
French fans chanted “ Allez Les Bleus,” but it didn’t help.
The game got so lopsided coach Mike Krzyzewski put in rookie center Anthony Davis for the final eight minutes. He got his first Olympic highlight, an alley-oop dunk off a pass from Russell Westbrook.
Among the plays that drew the most “oohs’’ came early, with the United States leading 8-5. James launched an overhead two-handed bounce pass from beyond midcourt to Durant, who was sprinting toward the basket. It was reminiscent of the countless spectacular long passes James and Heat teammate Dwyane Wade connected on all season.
San Antonio guard Tony Parker, wearing protective goggles after left eye surgery, scored 10 points for France, and 6-9 center Ali Traore, who plays pro in Russia, led the French with 12 points.
“We didn’t play a perfect game, we still have room for improvement,’’ said James, who scored nine points and grabbed five rebounds. “A few turnovers, too many fouls, but overall we played a pretty good game. If we do that we’re going to give ourselves a good chance to win.’’
James and guard Chris Paul said it took some getting used to the international rules and officiating. The United States went to the line 38 times and the French 27.
“It was a different whistle than what we’re accustomed to, but we just have to play through it,’’ James said. “The rules are different. You go from 48 minutes a game to 40 minutes a game, goaltending rule, so many different rules from ours, you have to adjust during the game.’’
Said Paul: “We all learned a lot from this game. We saw how the game is going to be officiated. A lot of us have played international a lot, but there is not as much contact as in the past. The main thing is, we felt it was important to make a statement to ourselves with this game, and I think we did that.’’
Kevin Love was the second-leading scorer for the United States with 14 points. Kobe Bryant added 10. Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler had nine rebounds apiece.
Despite their fame and multimillion-dollar salaries, the U.S. players said playing in the Olympics is a humbling experience.
“You’re representing more than just your respective state or respective city, you’re representing all of America, and we understand that every time we touch the floor that it’s not about the name on our back, it’s about the name across our chest. We just try to do that at a high level and do it in a respectful way,’’ James said.
Next up: Tunisia on Tuesday. The Tunisians lost 60-56 to Nigeria in their opener, and have no NBA players on their roster. Their players come from teams such as Jeunesse Sportive Kairoua, Ezzahra Sports, Racing Basketball Antwerp, and Widad Athletic Casablanca.
Asked if he ever feels sorry for opponents, Paul smiled and said: “No, never. Nobody ever feels sorry for us.’’