THE SPORTS GUY
Is it a classic if no one is watching?
Guess you'll have to take my word for it.
I can't let the Gold-Medal Game go. USA 118, Spain 107. One of the 10 most dramatic basketball games of my lifetime. And nobody gave a crap or even knew. The game started at 2:30 in the morning ET and vanished into thin air. Only West Coasters and super-diehards stayed up to see it. Everyone else woke up Sunday, heard the score, caught the highlights and never thought about it again.
When was the last time a truly great sporting event completely slipped through the cracks? That never happens anymore. Ever! I feel about 3% cooler just for being one of the few who watched it live.
Consider the following:
IT WAS ALL SLIPPING AWAY. COULD THERE BE ANY MORE PRESSURE? I SAY NO.
• You do realize that all those points were scored in 40 minutes, right? This was like a Nuggets-Spurs game in 1978, only this time there was a gold medal at stake, so everyone was playing out of their minds. The two teams combined to make 41 of 65 field goals, 13 of 22 threes and 35 of 41 free throws—in the first half.
• The Spaniards hung with America's finest even though a) star point José Calderón was injured; b) star scorer Rudy Fernández battled foul trouble all game; and c) they made the goofy decision to play with first names on the backs of their jerseys (shades of Cadwallader University in Fast Break). So how did they hang around? They got a few sneaky baskets on back doors and high screens. Fernández (22 points in 18 minutes) hit a few bombs. The U.S. needed a fire extinguisher to put out Juan Carlos Navarro, who made an absurd collection of floaters, runners and you-gotta-be-kidding-mes. And in the upset of the century, the Gasol Bros. (32 points) totally overwhelmed Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh inside.
(You heard me, the Gasol Bros.! On the Black Sheep Brother Scale, Marc moved out of a three-way deadlock with Don Swayze and Jeremy Giambi after this game. He still has a little way to go to catch Frank Stallone, though.)
• Ricky Rubio started for Calderón and was solid, if not great. But the feat itself? Do I need to remind you he's the same age as Jamie Lynn Spears? Imagine Team USA picking Chris Paul and a high school kid as its point guards, then Paul missing the gold-medal game and the teenager holding his own? How many commercials would he be filming right now? Twenty? The nonstop Pistol Pete comparisons are beneath Rubio; his defensive instincts, playmaking and athleticism bring him closer to a hybrid of Scottie Pippen and a young Magic—if they happened to look like one of the Jonas Brothers. I love Ricky to the point that I might move to whatever NBA city gets him. You think I'm kidding.
• Dwyane Wade's 27 points off the bench. I forgot how much I missed him. When a Spaniard tripped Wade at the end of the first half it sent me (and whichever other Americans were still up) into full-fledged "Oh, you want a piece of us, Spain?!" mode. It was just the extra motivation I needed. Why? Rooting for Kobe and Coach K is like rooting for the house in blackjack. It never stops feeling wrong, and you never stop secretly wanting to turn on them. When Nike brilliantly used Marvin Gaye's rendition of the national anthem in its commercial, I was pretty much swayed; you could have talked me into caring about a team featuring Kevin Federline, Jimmy Fallon and Spencer Pratt after that. But some scrub from Spain nearly blowing out Wade's knee? It was on.
• You can't beat three incompetent FIBA refs speaking different languages for providing an I-hope-this-doesn't-turn-out-like-the-last-three-seconds-of-the-'72-Olympic-gold-medal-game edge. Just when Spain was fading, Fernández caught the on-fires from Navarro and YouTubed Howard with a hellacious dunk. But he fouled out on an egregious touch foul (Kobe's game-altering four-point play), and Spain cried conspiracy after. Problem is, those bozos called a whopping 55 fouls and looked more wobbly than a 93-year-old backing out of a driveway. Fun wrinkle, especially if you wanted to have a two-hour heart attack.
I LOVE RUBIO SO MUCH I MIGHT MOVE TO WHATEVER NBA CITY GETS HIM.
• Not one, not two but three festering Team USA weaknesses bubbled up. First, they lacked a KG-like defender who could patrol the paint and fix every lapse on D, as well as a Bruce Bowen-like perimeter stopper to squash high screens. And guess what: The Swayzes worked over the Howard/Bosh combo, and Navarro killed the U.S. on the same high screen at least 45 times. The suits spent more than two years picking this team and failed to find the only two defenders they needed? Really?
Second, Coach K kept starting a washed-up Jason Kidd (can't shoot, can't play slash-and-kick) over Chris Paul and Deron Williams (only the two best American point guards right now). This was the elephant in the room for two weeks. Kidd would tread water, and Paul and Williams would wreak havoc. Meanwhile, Coach K pretended it wasn't happening, and NBC's Mike Breen and Doug Collins totally ducked the issue. Only when Spain threatened in the second half did Paul and Williams alternate playing the final 16 minutes because, you know, K realized he actually needed to win the game. The good news: He gets to deduct the charity minutes he gave Kidd at tax time.
Third, for most of the Games, Team USA had an alpha dog issue. Was this Kobe's team or LeBron's? Fast-forward to 8:13 left: Fernández's three cuts the lead to two; the crowd is going bonkers. Spain's bench reacts like a euphoric 15-seed during a March Madness upset, and the U.S. calls timeout. All along, my biggest fear had been a tight game and multiple USA guys saying, "I got it!" Instead, everyone deferred to Kobe, who made some monster plays to clinch it. Know that in the history of the NBA we have never had the best-player-alive argument resolved so organically. Incredible. Kobe, you have the Lord of the Flies conch. Use it wisely.
• Had the Americans blown this one, the Choke Job Hall of Fame would have a new wing. Kobe, Bron, Wade and Coach K would have been stained forever (not to mention Howard, whose stock slipped at a Bear Stearns speed in the medal round). Imagine the pressure on Team USA during that timeout. After all the rhetoric and BS, after all the hype about choosing the right team, everything was slipping away. Could there be more pressure than that? I say no.
Yeah, they just barely prevailed over an opponent they should have beaten handily. This was still the most dramatic non-Phelps moment of the Olympics. I know one person who attended the game (my friend Hirschy, an NBA nut) who spent 20 minutes recapping it a week later, repeatedly telling me, "You had to be there—this was tense!" No kidding.
I could tell that at the final buzzer, when 12 filthy rich grown-ups began to celebrate like Little Leaguers. No posturing, fake crying or rehearsed dance routines, just hugging and more hugging. We wanted a selfless team that cared. We wanted a team to come through when it mattered. We wanted one unforgettable game. We got all of it—well, those of us paying attention, anyway.
And that's why I hope neither NBA TV nor ESPN Classic ever replays this game. It belongs to me and the lucky few who watched it live and sweated it out. God bless America. Hell, I might even start rooting for Coach K and Kobe after this.
(On second thought … nah.)
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