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.