USA's moves off the court just as impressive as their dominance on it
PICK OF THE WEEKEND BASKETBALL/Men's Final, USA v Spain, Tomorrow, 3pm, North Greenwich Arena:ON WEDNESDAY, a photograph appeared in the Evening Standard of a gang of young men posing for the camera as they travelled on the Javelin, the speed train that ferries people between the Olympic Stadium and King’s Cross railway station.
It would have been entirely unremarkable except for the fact that the men in question made up the USA Olympic basketball team. It took a few seconds to register.
There was Kobe Bryant wearing his hood up and LeBron James crouching forward and Tyson Chandler grinning from the rear of the pack.
The Americans have been a star draw as they eased through the early stages of the tournament. But their off-court demeanour has been as important as the athleticism and skill with which they play the game.
From the beginning of these Olympics, the Americans have been approachable, conscious of their role as ambassadors for the game and happy to talk with star- struck athletes and fans. They have turned up at other events and have taken to ditching the chauffeured cars to travel by train along with the fans, whom they have thrilled with their play.
Tomorrow’s gold medal match has been one of the hottest tickets at these games, with the assumption that it would feature the Americans against the one team believed to be capable of causing an upset: Spain.
Predictably, both sides turned up in last night’s semi-finals (the US beat Argentina 109-83) and were heavy favourites to go on to meet in the final. The fact the semi-final between Spain and Russia was so difficult to call (Spain won 67-59) illustrated what American coach Mike Krzyzewski emphasised at the beginning of the tournament: world basketball is catching up.
Twenty years ago, Krzyzewski was an assistant coach on the USA ‘Dream Team’, which so electrified the Barcelona Games.
The way the sport is played has changed significantly in the two decades since. If anything, the Americans are now producing play-anywhere wonders like Kevin Durant, the 6ft 10in forward who can dribble like a guard and rain three-pointers when the mood takes him. But the NBA scouting system has now gone global and the league has become international. So for Spain’s Pau Gasol and Argentina’s Manu Ginobili and Nicolas Batum of France, coming face to face with Bryant or Chris Paul was no big deal. When Australia faced the USA in the quarter-final, they managed to keep the game close for the first three quarters.
As expected, the Americans eased away in the end but afterwards, it was Australia’s Patrick Mills that everyone was talking about. Mills, whose mother is Aborigine, was drafted as the 55th choice in the NBA three years ago but has bloomed in America and drew high praise from Bryant for his stunning 26-point haul in the defeat.
The Americans have blown hot and cold, struggling with their shooting against the French and then notching up an Olympic record against the poor Nigerians, when they hit 156 points. Their scare came against the fearless, sharp-shooting Lithuanians; with just seven minutes left, the Europeans led the match by two.
The USA flirted with humiliation here, but in the final minutes, James went on a scoring spree to see the favourites through. And that is the difference.