Next to Mitt Romney picking Paul Ryan as his running mate, the best thing that happened over the weekend was the USA basketball team capturing the gold medal at the London Olympics.
Their play was impressive, as was the class and unabashed patriotism they showed in winning. LeBron James was the indispensable player in every game, but he brushed off a question about his stardom this way: “This is all about USA. It’s not about me. It’s about the three letters on our chest.”
James said the players wanted “to represent our country in the right way.” Indeed they did. Having heard the Star Spangled Banner before so many games, athletes often look bored and fidgety when it is played. Not this team. With their gold medals hung around their necks, each player put his hand over his heart and stood proudly as the national anthem was played.
The USA team was favored, naturally. It is the world’s best team with most of the world’s best players. But at times in crucial games against Lithuania, Argentina (twice), and Spain, they played as if the pressure to win had gotten to them. Doug Collins, who starred on the 1972 Olympic team and was the TV analyst for the U.S. games, called these “lapses.” And that’s all they were.
James invariably brought the lapses to an end. If you watched the last four or five games—and I suspect even many serious basketball fans did not—you saw one of the greatest basketball performances of all time by James. He can do everything on the court, including play any position, and he did. He’s the smartest player I’ve ever watched.
When the Americans were threatened and a basket was needed—or two or three baskets—he delivered. His passing was brilliant. He was always a play ahead. Before receiving a pass, he already knew who was open. By the way, he’s simply LeBron now, like Kobe or Madonna or Newt.
LeBron, 27, was always the adult on the court—unflappable, focused, unselfish, tenacious on defense. So it wasn’t surprising that at critical moments the ball went to him—to pass, shoot, or whatever. In yesterday’s gold medal game against Spain, when that moment came in the fourth quarter, he dunked and followed it on the next possession with a three-pointer.
Is LeBron better than Michael Jordan? I’m with LeBron, but the truth is they are very different players. Jordan was an unstoppable scorer, but LeBron can do more things, do them well, and is as good than Jordan in clutch situations. He’s always the leader on the floor, and he’s bigger than Jordan.
There’s another debate: is the 2012 team better than the Dream Team of the 1992 Olympics (Jordan, Magic, Barkley, Bird)? Both were undefeated, but I favor this year’s team, for one reason: The competition is far better now than it was in Barcelona 20 years ago. The difference is dramatic.
The Dream Team never played a team as big and talented as the Spanish team that LeBron and Co. defeated. The teams from Argentina and Russia and perhaps Lithuania were superior to the 1992 teams. Basketball has just gotten better around the globe. Forty players in London had NBA experience, and only 12 of them were on the American team.
It may be hard to believe, but the 2012 team could have been much better. The best center in the universe, Dwight Howard, was missing because of surgery, and power forward Blake Griffin and guard Dwayne Wade were absent due to injuries. Wade starred in the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Kobe Bryant won’t be a member of the USA team at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. He’ll be missed. But the 2016 team should be superior to this year’s great team. It will have to be because the competition will be even stronger, too. Assuming LeBron James plays, the prospects of winning another gold medal ought to be very, very good.