U.S. men top Spain for basketball gold

Posted: August 13, 2012

LONDON - Move over Miracle on Ice. The United States has a new group of scrappy underdogs who overcame incredible odds to win an Olympic gold medal.

"This means everything," said LeBron James, a feisty young basketball player from Ohio. "A lot of people doubted us. They said we were too small. Said we couldn't compete with the size of a lot of teams. But Chris [Paul] said it. It's not about the size, it's about heart."

This gritty, plucky band of brothers staged a furious rally against international basketball powerhouse Spain, earning a 107-100 victory and a gold medal for the United States. Kevin Durant rocketed from a virtual unknown playing hoops in the obscure outpost of Oklahoma City to a household name, leading the U.S. team with 30 points and nine rebounds.

"Do you still believe in miracles?" NBC color analyst Doug Collins cried as . . .

OK, enough of that.

Let's just say England is a good place for royalty. James, Durant, Kobe Bryant, and the rest of them had to break a sweat against a talented Team EspaƱa, but the outcome of this tournament was never much in doubt. Yes, a few national media types, trying to gin up a little suspense, pointed out that the U.S. team was without Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, and Blake Griffin. That would make the team a bit smaller than it otherwise would be.

But the imagined army of 7-foot-2 opponents never materialized. The United States sailed through the tournament, not really struggling until the gold-medal game. Spain had Pau and Marc Gasol, but it was also without point guard Ricky Rubio.

Pau Gasol's monster third quarter - 15 of his 24 points - kept Spain in the game. He was held to just one point in the fourth quarter. James did much of the defensive work, including a hard foul that opened a cut near Pau Gasol's eye. A running dunk and a three-point shot by James gave the United States control of the game.

"We didn't want easy," James said. "They tested us. And that's good for us."

It is good mostly because of the discussion that comes up whenever the Summer Olympics roll around. The U.S. basketball teams, men's and women's, are far and away the most talented and accomplished. They can only win the gold medal or embarrass themselves, nothing in between. Spain can be happy with its second consecutive silver, and Russia can be thrilled with its bronze.

The United States doesn't have that option.

NBA commissioner David Stern cranked up the debate by suggesting a 23-and-under rule similar to the one used in Olympic men's soccer. Each roster would be allowed just three players older than 23.

The U.S. players were unanimous in their rejection of that idea. So a competitive final served them well.

If the age limit doesn't fly - and it very likely won't - maybe the better fix is a salary cap. Based on last season's contract numbers, Team USA earned a combined $148.7 million. And that doesn't include incoming NBA rookie Anthony Davis.

James was the young kid on the 2004 team that flopped to a bronze in Athens. He and Carmelo Anthony were the only members of that team to play in London.

"That was the lowest point for the USA team," James said. "Jerry [Colangelo] took over. We lost the world championship in '06, but we made that three-year commitment. We just tried to keep getting better every single summer. It's been a long road for USA Basketball. I'm happy to be in a position where I had something to do with us being back on top."

The basketball players conducted themselves more like members of the larger U.S. contingent here. They were seen at other events, including women's basketball and soccer games. They didn't stay with the proletariat in the Olympic Village, but they visited and impressed other athletes by knowing who they were and what they had accomplished.

"There was definitely a different attitude toward the game, toward what it meant to really represent your country," James said. "I don't think we all understood that. I think we were just pulling on the uniform and thought we could come together in two, three weeks and go out there and win."

James said he wasn't sure whether he would be back for the Rio Games in 2016. It was the final Olympic game for Bryant and coach Mike Krzyzewski. The players doused the coach and danced around the court, happy to complete their coronation.

"This is right there at the top," said Bryant, who has two gold medals and five NBA championships rings. "It was a good journey for us. It was just tough. So to be standing here at the moment having played a tough opponent in Spain, with another gold medal, it's a huge accomplishment."

Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Follow @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster

and his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

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