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Redeem Team Does US Proud

Anyone who watched Kobe Bryant get thoroughly handled by Paul Pierce and the Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals knew the other shoe would drop soon enough.

The guy has never been able to stomach losing — from growing up in Italy challenging his dad’s teammates to games of one-on-one as a tyke to rounding into the force that has competed for five NBA championships, it’s always been win or bust for the Black Mamba.

That said, the spanking his Lakers took in June at the hands of an old rival registered a full 11 on the Kobe revenge-o-meter. If there hadn’t been a certain hardwood redemption project in the works, you could’ve probably found him busting guys up on the Venice Beach courts all summer. A reassertion of the MVP’s supremacy was not only necessary, it was imminent. The only question was who would draw the short straw.

To describe the Beijing Olympics as timely would be to understate the urgency of Kobe’s desire to restore the basketball order.

Thus it was fitting that Spain — and not a wannabe And One Mixtape contingent from Inglewood — fell victim to the Mamba’s wrath. It was also revealing — considering that until the waning minutes of the final game the (no longer “so-called”) Redeem Team was able to thrive with the world’s best player serving as an auxiliary.

Kobe the role player? On this team he was, they all were. Which is why it was downright inspiring to see a group of the game’s greatest check their egos at customs, band together as a unit and take back what has always been rightfully America’s: title of best balling nation on the planet.

It was a spectacle to behold from the beginning of the eight-game run to redemption. Assembled by Jerry Colangelo and spurred on by Mike Krzyzewski, Team USA played suffocating defense, exhibited sincere unselfishness, finished quarters strong, refused to respond to the pugnacious ploys of other countries, and visibly relished representing their homeland.

Fluid and flawless as their performance was on the court (average margin of victory: 27.9 points), so too was their work as ambassadors off it. As opposed to the bad taste USA Basketball left in the mouths of most everyone associated with the 2004 Athens Games, the players this time around embraced their status as representatives of their nation.

In a country where Kobe Bryant and Lebron James are as popular as Yao Ming, 12 tall gentlemen were crucial to shaping the American image in China. If accessibility and amiability were tallied in points, the score would’ve been in the thousands for the Redeem Team.

Again, with the reclusive and moody Athens squad as the most recent basis for comparison, the 2008 team registered a PR blowout. They kicked it in the Olympic Village, dined out, signed countless autographs, attended other events in different venues, soaked up the vast cultural and touristic offerings of the host country — all the while living a kind of existence only the Beatles could relate to. Which is to say the experience was equal parts thrilling and daunting.

Overwhelming as the reception may have been at times, they were in it together, a team united as much off the court as on, which not only bolstered the image of their sport and country but demonstrated how they’ve all caught up to the game the world has caught up to. A team game.

From Carmelo Anthony’s rugged international style to smooth Chris Paul’s million dollar smile, from Lebron’s vocal leadership to Jason Kidd’s experience, Dwyane Wade’s panache and Kobe’s competitiveness, these 12 men came to embody everything we as Americans could’ve hoped for: charming, witty, classy winners.

So I found myself nodding my head when Kobe took over the gold-medal game late, having a hand in 18 of Team USA’s final 27 points in a thrilling fourth quarter that tested the resolve of Team Redeem. His time had come after all, the time to reaffirm his place as the best player in the world. He hadn’t forced it though, hadn’t once unleashed the revenge-seeking Black Mamba just because he could. There was something far greater at stake, and he knew it. They all did.

That was the spirit of this squad. All for one.

For that reason USA Basketball has respectfully regained it’s throne atop the basketball world. And they did it on the world’s terms, not their own. They did it the right way.

Olympic Points

National pride is a sensation that — for most of us — rarely manifests itself in a profound way. As Americans, the concept of nationalism is more or less implicit. We’re intrinsically proud to be American (with caveats) but rarely wake up with a burning desire to be closer to Uncle Sam.

It’s for this reason that you don’t commonly observe reverent citizens gathered around American flags in the streets of US cities or see 50,000 people breaking down in tears before sporting events when the Star Spangled Banner is performed.

Indeed, the two most tangible representations of American nationalism — the flag and the national anthem — are so omnipresent that more often than not they evoke a sense of formality rather than one of visceral emotion. In my lifetime there have only been two recurring instances where I’ve felt an instinctive and deep-seated connection to my flag and national anthem.

First is when I’m traveling abroad. Exploring the culture and examining the history of foreign lands has always piqued my interest. It’s also summoned my frequently dormant patriotism.

(Case in point: A vacation I was on in Normandy, France. A friend of mine owns a seaside house on Omaha Beach, site of the American invasion into German-occupied France during World War II. Situated a mere half-mile or so from my friend’s property is the Normandy American Cemetery, a magnificent and powerful memorial that contains the remains of the thousands of American military that perished in the D-Day battle. On a balmy June morning a few years back, I led 15 excited French kids up the hill that adjoins to the Cimetiere Americain while belting out the Star Spangled Banner. It was a goofy and endearing sequence that was also one of most prideful moments I’ve ever had as an American. Chances are it shall remain such.)

The only other happening that can arouse my inner patriotism is the Olympics. I enjoy the clash of countries and cultures through the competition of sport. Frequently I will casually tune into some coverage knowing it’s only a matter of time before I’m totally swept up: as a sports fan, as a journalist, as an American.

This happened on Sunday night, or day three of the 2008 Beijing Games. Work had precluded me from watching any of the Opening Ceremonies or early events, so I was already psyched to get my first dose of the summer games since Athens.

Political and idealogical implications of these Olympics notwithstanding, Michael Phelps’ quest for Olympic immortality (eight gold medals) has been top news thus far. He took home his first gold in the 400 meter individual medley, which preceded what was said to be his toughest event, the 4 x 100m freestyle relay. It was purported to be his sole “long shot” because he would need to rely on three other guys to have a chance.

I don’t know a whole lot about the event, but I do know that the Americans owned it from 1964 through 1996. They relinquished their stranglehold on gold in the 2000 Sydney Games at the hands of the host Aussies before slipping to bronze medal status in Athens four years ago.

Leading up to Beijing, gold in the men’s relay became synonymous with the French. They were the presumptive favorites. Quite presumptive in fact. The French anchor and world-record holder in the 100m freestyle, Alain Bernard, took it up a notch, saying, “The Americans? We’re going to smash them. That’s what we came here for.”

And so French — again — became synonymous with tactless arrogance.

Since I’ve spent so much time in France, love the language and may very well reside there one day, I’ve always had the back of the French when unknowing folks take unfounded shots at them. Which only serves to underscore the wave of patriotism and French antipathy I suddenly harbored upon seeing those comments.

Wait, you’re talkin about my boys? Faux real?! I stewed. Oh it’s on now Frenchy!

As the race began — with Phelps swimming the lead-off leg — I was locked in. Sure enough, the Americans fell behind during the middle legs. By the time the American anchor, Jason Lezak, hit the water, he was more than a half-second behind the world-record holding Bernard (which I’m pretty sure is a hell of a lot).

He made up no eau in the first 50 meters and needed a miraculous push in the home stretch to have any shot at thwarting the brash Frenchman. With a little more than 30 meters to go he started to make his move. The crowd felt it. At 20 meters he had gained more ground, at 10 slightly more.

With one final dominating stroke, Lezak pulled into the end wall a fraction of a second ahead of Bernard — eight-hundredths of a second to be exact. It was so close that Phelps and the rest of the team — along with the announcers — had to look at the official scoreboard to affirm their rapturous delight.

What followed was a state of euphoria experienced communally by the improbable gold medalists, the delirious announcers, the awestruck crowd and every proud American following it all half a world away.

Phelps struck a muscle pose that could grace the cover of any fitness magazine. The broadcaster’s voice cracked. I jumped up and nearly hit the ceiling.

The quest for unprecedented gold continued.

And to think, ten minutes before that piece of history I was mindlessly channel surfing my way through an otherwise mundane Sunday night.

That’s the glory of the Olympics.

See Ya Manny, So Long Dynasty

I received a text from a friend the night before the trade deadline when it looked like Manny Ramirez was headed to South Florida to join the Marlins. The text read: “Worried yet?”

My response: “They won’t do it. Not with a dynasty on the line.”

(One of the great sports debates is what constitutes a dynasty. It’s clearly a subjective interpretation of greatness. In this scribe’s opinion a team must win back-to-back titles plus another one within a few years, which is to say any franchise that wins three out of five championships is worthy of some manifestation of the term “dynasty”. A banner in 2008 would mean three out of five for the Sox.)

So my rationale was the Red Sox brass would not threaten what is at least arguably a potential dynasty in the making, particularly given that David Ortiz spent a significant period of time on the shelf and the team didn’t fade.

Given that Josh Beckett is fixing to turn it up, that Dice-K has been far from the liability most believed he would be this year and Jon Lester is the second-best lefty in the American League.

Given that Jonathan Papelbon is still the surest thing this side of Mariano Rivera when it comes to closing games in October.

Given that the most prolific offensive tandem since Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig was intact again for the first time since it co-slugged its way to a second World Series in four years.

Given that cumulatively this team was unequivocally gearing up for another title run.

I didn’t think it would happen because I’ve come to understand the whims of this ownership. John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino have personalized the experience of being a Red Sox fan because they themselves are Red Sox fans — ones who happen to be ridiculously wealthy businessmen who assumed control of the enterprise.

Too often in sports business and figures detract from what is ultimately best for a team. With Manny’s eight-year, $160 million deal, it was at times a wise business move for the ownership to remove all those dollars from its weighty payroll. Hence irrevocable waivers in 2003, a busted trade for Alex Rodriguez in 2004, and annual deadline talks with the Mets’ Omar Minaya about a Manny move to Flushing.

In all instances, getting rid of Manny was the smart business move, the best for the bottom line. But Theo Epstein — acting on behalf of the trio — abstained from ever pulling the string because of one prevailing reason: The guy was too damned good and too vital to the most important end of winning. Winning superseded personal relationships. Winning supplanted smart business.

To this ownership, winning mattered most. And in pennant races and pursuits of October glory, Ramirez behind Ortiz gave the Red Sox a decisive inside track to victory.

I’ll be frank: Manny has always been a pain in the rear (to put it gently) through the eyes of ownership and his colleagues. It was just always kept more or less under wraps, in that Manny for the most part squawked privately and off the record, which meant only bits and pieces were divulged.

I’m sorry, but it’s no coincidence that the historically publicly soft-spoken Manny signed with Scott Boras before (essentially) a contract year — the Red Sox held two $20 million club options for 2009 and 2010 on Ramirez — then proceeded to start voicing all the displeasures he’s traditionally voiced behind the scenes directly to the media.

Boras, who’s likely still peeved at the Red Sox for holding him hostage two summers ago over the Dice-K contract, saw the perfect opportunity to turn the tables on the only contingent to have gotten the better of him at the negotiating table.

He knew that unleashing the Manny circus on the public would force the hand of the club, force them to 1) pay monetarily to get rid of Manny (which they have, $7 million), 2) dispose of him for seventy cents on the dollar (which they did, for Jason Bay), and 3) line Manny up to get shown the money come this offseason (which if I were a betting man…).

Done and done. And just like that the Manny Ramirez era came to a prompt conclusion in Boston.

What truly perplexes me is the fact that lots of fans and writers are on board with the move. Proponents of the trade would point to the fact that Manny’s bullheadedness was tearing the team apart from the inside, that his antics have been far worse this year than in the past.

Not true.

Manny has always been Manny. To the fans and outside world he was frequently endearing, quirky and warm, while behind closed doors he was consistently self-centered, obstinate and vexing. Bottom line is he has forever lived in Manny World, in spite of everyone around him — be it media, teammates or bosses.

(If you’re not convinced, pick up Seth Mnookin’s Feeding the Monster. It is the single most illuminating piece of writing about Manny and the organization.)

Due to that longstanding discord it was obvious that Manny and Boston would part ways after this season. After finishing what unofficially kicked off in 2003, the most prosperous era in Red Sox history. Like it or not, like him or not, the Red Sox with Manny Ramirez were most sufficiently primed to defend a World Series crown for the first time in nearly a century.

Debating team chemistry, managing motives and money is moot. Through everything that has gone down in the last week, only two facts have emerged: 1) The Red Sox are a decidedly worse team today than they were on the morning of July 31, 2008, and 2) If they should get there, the Red Sox will be a far less intimidating force in October than they were in ’04 or ’07.

Don’t believe me?

Just ask any Angels or Yankees fan.