For warm-ups, Yao Ming led the Chinese on to the floor. More than 18,000 packed the Olympic Basketball Stadium, and they got suitably loud. China's fans stayed as loud when the U.S. team appeared. That's when flashbulbs started popping from practically every seat in the place, right until the game began.
This one must have been negotiated by the countries' diplomats. China caught fire immediately - with Yao himself hitting the first three-pointer - while the Americans came armed without jump shots. They scored 20 of their first 35 points on dunks, making just one of their first 15 three-point tries. China hit 8 of 12 early three-pointers and still was within three points just four minutes before halftime.
"It is a treasure in my life," Yao Ming, China's greatest sporting export, said of this night.
The evening began like a fairy tale. The 7-foot-6 center from Shanghai and Houston Rockets star has made one three-pointer in his 404-game NBA career. So 24 seconds in, Yao hit from the top of the key and pumped his fist in the air.
President Bush and his father watched the game with Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi sitting between them.
The president talked to the U.S. team before the game. Afterward, Bryant was asked what Bush told the players.
"Kick butt," Bryant said.
That was the exact quote?
"I'm paraphrasing," he said.
Bryant seemed genuine about feeling like being part of history, since China's interest in this was expected to make it the most-watched basketball game ever. But Bryant was diplomatic when he said the energy of the place accounted for all the dunking. For these Games, Yao rushed his recovery from a fractured foot in February. He clearly isn't 100 percent. He had 10 rebounds and three blocks to go with 13 points and was a constant escape valve on offense. But he also was a step or two slow, and isn't a player who can afford to lose a step or two.
At the news conference, a foreign journalist asked U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski about all the dunking: "Do you think it's kind of a show-off?"
Krzyzewski said his players had to dunk. Throwing up floaters against a Chinese team featuring three 7-footers would not have been the best option.
"We played our fannies off. We played hard," Krzyzewski said, enunciating that F sound for an extra beat. "Maybe our language differences - does hard mean showing off?"
The bigger question: Would this game have sufficed against an opponent doing a better job of keeping the Americans out of the lane? Early on, the team still looked similar to the U.S. bronze medalists at the last Olympics and last World Championships.
Designated U.S. shooter Michael Redd, who made 3 of 7 three-pointers while his teammates combined for 4 of 17, tried to cover for the rest of them.
"The one thing about us, we're not used to seeing open looks," Redd said.
Was it a good or bad sign that Bryant got mad at himself for not being able to lead LeBron James properly for a fastbreak dunk? (James settled for a layup.) Looking to get his fellow superstar a highlight? Big points for Bryant. Caring about highlights at the Olympics? Take a few away.
That said, there weren't any signs of selfishness from the Americans. With a 26-point lead, they had a possession in the first minutes of the fourth quarter in which all five players touched the ball, each once in rapid order.
"What did you do to have your players kill their super-egos?" one reporter asked.
"Well, I'm going to tell them you think they have super-egos," Krzyzewski said.
China coach Jonas Kazlauskas, a Lithuanian, must not have received the script for this opener. He thought that hitting all the early threes might have been a mistake, that maybe the Chinese players figured the deep shots would fall all game.
Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or firstname.lastname@example.org.