The U.S. national basketball team, dubbed the Redeem Team, won the gold medal in the Beijing Olympics with a 118-107 win over Spain—very late—Saturday night. It was the culmination of a three-year program to rebuild the national team and restore American primacy in basketball. However, the gold medal isn't the end of a long, arduous task; it's the beginning. A long difficult road lies ahead. The win was merely a victory in a tournament, not a restoration of a dynasty.
The Redeem Team was the result of an embarrassing series of American losses in recent international competition. In the 2004 Athens Olympiad, the U.S. team lost three times en route to the bronze medal. And in the 2002 World Championships, the U.S. was routed often and finished sixth. Jerry Colangelo put together a group of players who would play together at the World Championships in 2006, the Festival of the Americas Olympic qualifying tournament in 2007 and the 2008 Olympics.
No one doubted that on a per-player basis the Americans had more talent. However, basketball is a team game (I wish I didn't have to say that so often), and the other top international teams, most notably Spain, Argentina, Lithuania and Greece had units that had been playing together for a long time. As a result, these teams had the sort of chemistry that made them much greater than the sum of their player's talent.
The big idea was that if the U.S. team could achieve that level of unity, then the national team would return to an age of dominance comparable to the '50s and '60s when the gold medal was nearly a fait accompli for the United States. The team seemed eerily close to that level during the early rounds of both the 2006 World Championships and this month's Olympics. However, in 2006, the team ran into a flukish performance. In the semifinals, the Greek team shot better than 70 percent from the field in the final three quarters and eeked out a 101-95 win. The Spanish national team came close to an upset on Saturday night, and this time it was no fluke.
The middle-of-the-night affair on Saturday night was much closer than the final score indicated. It was close and tense, every time the U.S. seemed to pull away, Spain came right back, emphatically. After two weeks of posterizing everyone else, the Americans got a taste of their own medicine. Rudy Fernandez's screaming dunk over a helpless and late-rotating Dwight Howard will be replayed every time Fernandez enters a Portland Trail Blazer game this season. However, earlier Fernandez faced down a double team deep on the perimeter, showed two crossover dribbles, stepped back and drained a trey from so far behind the arc it may have warranted four points. Seventeen-year-old future high lottery pick Ricky Rubio was putting on a show. In the first half, he left Jason Kidd standing in cement and split Howard and Carmelo Anthony in the paint for a little finger roll.
When the U.S. lead stood at a meager two points in the fourth quarter, it felt as if either team could win. What's more, the Spanish team wasn't playing as if it was simply hoping to compete with the American superstars; they played as if they fully expected to win. Spain won the World Championship in 2006 despite the absence of their best player, Pau Gasol. Saturday night (yes, it was Sunday afternoon in Beijing), the Spaniards played without their floor general, NBA star Jose Calderon of the Toronto Raptors, who was injured in an earlier game.
LeBron James wasn't just being polite when the first thing he said at the post game press conference was "much respect to the Spanish team."
During the two weeks of Olympic play, as the U.S. team routed one opponent after another by an average of 30 points, I began to think that this team was just as much a result of timing as it was national character. Four of the key players, James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh were all taken in the 2003 draft, an extraordinary haul of talent. Since none of the subsequent drafts offered even half as much Hall-of-Fame-bound talent as '03, I began to wonder about the concept of future dominance. And now, following the gold-medal game, that curiosity has become a full-fledged concern. Although nearly everyone on this year's team says they will be back, let's see how they feel in April when their bodies feel the toll of playing basketball for nearly 42 straight months. Their commitment to the national team substantially reduces their rest and recovery time in the offseason. Wade is injury prone and will undoubtedly feel some pressure from Miami Heat management to save himself for the NBA season. Kobe Bryant will be 34 years old by the time the London Olympics roll around in 2012. Even if he plays, it's unlikely he can match the level he displayed this summer. Their likely replacements would be Kevin Durant and Brandon Roy, but it's high praise via faint damnation to say that both players are downgrades from Wade and Bryant.
Meanwhile, Spain is formidable. Lithuania and Greece are improving. Serbia has taken a page from the American playbook and is creating a program to build its goldmine of hoops talent into formidable national team. In other words, the road to the gold in the 2010 World Championships and the 2012 London Olympics is only going to get harder for the U.S.
The national team's gold medal should be celebrated for exactly what it is: a product of hard work, resourcefulness and extraordinary talent. But don't read it as a harbinger of future glory; that's jumping to conclusions.
Martin Johnson is a New York writer.