A night of basketball spectacle and spectacular
BEIJING (AP) The Beijing Dream Dancers had just finished doing their thing, though not many in the crowd seemed to care. There were other things to look at on this night, not the least of which was a 7-foot-6 center of attention and his band of overachieving teammates.
Midway through the second quarter they were playing the superstar collection of Americans to a draw, much to the delight of their countrymen who had come to salute all things China and all things Kobe.
That would change, of course, because there was no way Yao Ming and company could continue to hang with the new Dreamers and even the crowd that filled every seat, every box and even some aisles at the Wukesong Indoor Stadium had to realize that.
But, hey, here it was 29-29, and wasn't that President Bush leaning forward in his seat with a worried look on his face?
Nothing to worry about. On basketball's biggest stage, the Americans weren't about to disappoint.
Not the 18,000 or so who packed the arena. Not the untold millions who made it the most watched basketball game ever.
Not Bush, his father or even Henry Kissinger, who joined the party. Not even the 10 Dream Dancers, brought in by the NBA to spice up the night.
And most of all, certainly not themselves.
"It can't get any bigger than this," Dwyane Wade said. "It's the start of something that can be great. We've been waiting for years for this moment."
So had the Chinese, which was what made this night so special. They had Yao and a proud country of 1.3 billion on their side, and they were determined to, at the very minimum, put on a show for the home fans.
Yao did just that by hitting a 3-pointer on the first shot of the game, and the Chinese shot well enough from beyond the line to make a game of it for a quarter and a half. After that, it was the usual U.S. dunkathon and the expected 101-70 rout, which put a smile on Bush's face as he made an early exit midway through the fourth quarter.
"I don't know how many people were watching the game, but it was an honor to play in it," Carlos Boozer said. "It was a great atmosphere."
No one else knows for sure, either. Nielsen ratings haven't gotten as far as China just yet, but in a basketball-mad country the estimates ranged to the hundreds of millions.
That dwarfed the audience back home for the U.S. team, but they seemed as excited about putting on a show for the Chinese as they did in taking the first step toward the gold medal.
Any question how dedicated this U.S. team is to being in Beijing should have been answered with the three-year commitment each player made just to make the team. If not, it should have become apparent with their tenacious play in exhibition games leading up to the Olympics.
Or maybe just peek inside the pit of their stomachs and see the butterflies that flew out with opening up their gold-medal quest against the home team in a game that meant everything.
"The anticipation was crazy," Wade said. "We were all excited and anxious. This game was over the top."
The anxiety contributed to some early shooting woes that kept China in the game before the sheer athleticism and depth of the collection of American stars finally carried the night.
True, they exploited a team that didn't have much in the way of a back court and had only two NBA players in Yao and Yi Jianlian. And, yes, shooting 1-for-12 on 3-pointers in the first half is a recipe for disaster against teams like Argentina and Spain.
But this may be a team that is so good, so athletic and so deep that it can make up for any of its flaws. This may be a team that gets along so well and is so unselfish that it can overcome the night that is bound to come when things get uncomfortably tight.
At least that's what coach Mike Krzyzewski thought when asked by one interviewer how he "got all your players to kill their super egos."
"They do think they're good players," Krzyzewski said. "But we have a saying back home that when you're good you play for the name on the front of your jersey instead of the name on the back. Our guys all play for the name on the front of their jersey."
That name is USA, and this team is now 1-0, with seven games to go to gain redemption for the failure of Athens and win the gold medal. Next up is Angola, which will go quietly, but it gets tougher after that with games against Greece and Spain.
For sheer spectacle, though, none will match the night the U.S. took on China and the cheers rained down almost everytime anyone touched the ball. The crowd wanted its team to win, but the NBA players are treated like rock stars here and the cheers were as loud for Kobe Bryant as they were for Yao and his teammates.
In the end, everyone had a little something to be happy about.
The Chinese won a moral victory for keeping it close early and never backing down even though they were badly outmatched. The Americans got a very real win and a chance to shake the jitters for the road ahead.
Fans, meanwhile, got a chance to cheer for both sides.
And the biggest television audience ever for a basketball game got a show worth staying up for.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org