LONDON -- Mission accomplished.
Team USA’s All-Star players linked arms and stepped onto the podium together to accept their Olympic gold medals Sunday, their back-to-back titles leaving no doubt about their status as the top team in the world.
When the buzzer sounded on their 107-100 victory over Spain, the players jumped up and down on the court like schoolboys.
“It’s been a long road for USA Basketball,” said LeBron James, “and I’m happy to be in a position where I can say I’m glad I had something to do with us being back on top. Because that’s what it’s all about.”
Kevin Durant led Team USA with 30 points while James, who had foul trouble in the very physical game, contributed 19. Kobe Bryant added 17 points before 13,514 spectators at North Greenwich Arena who saw a close game that the United States could never quite put away until the final minutes.
Pau Gasol, Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers teammate, led Spain with 24 points, including 15 in the third quarter.
“It means everything,” said James, who claimed his third Olympic medal, his second gold. “They doubted us. They said we were too small, said we couldn’t compete with the size of a lot of teams. Like (U.S. teammate) Chris (Paul) said, it’s not about size, it’s the heart. It’s the heart that comes through and I’m happy we’ve got a bunch of big hearts on our team.”
He added, “It’s probably one of the best teams, if not the best team ever assembled.”
James has had a year filled with impressive milestones. He is the only player besides Michael Jordan to win the NBA title (with the Miami Heat), to be named regular-season MVP and NBA Finals MVP, and then take home the Olympic gold medal in the same year.
“It’s been a great ride for me,” James said. “I could never have scripted it this way. I’ve had many dreams about it.”
Since the first professional players played on the 1992 “Dream Team,” the United States has been the team to beat. But in 2004, the Americans were beaten by eventual gold medalist Argentina and came home disappointed with the bronze medal.
That debacle was followed by the loss in the 2006 FIBA World Championship, and USA Basketball started to rebuild. Coach Mike Krzyzewski sought the help of James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade (who did not compete because of injury). Each player made a three-year commitment.
They were joined by Bryant, Anthony and Paul as 2008 gold medalists on the “Redeem Team.”
“I was one of those kids,” Anthony said, “who looked back on the 1992 team that won gold in Barcelona, and said, ‘That is where I want to be,’ and 20 years later, here I am winning the gold medal.”
Krzyzewski joined legendary coach Hank Iba as the only coaches to lead the United States to consecutive gold medals.
However, the win wasn’t as dominant as previous victories by Team USA, which wound up outscoring opponents by an average margin of 32.1 points, thanks in part to the record 156 points scored against Nigeria. Besides the gold-medal game, the only other close game was a five-point victory (99-94) against Lithuania.
“We did a fantastic job playing against great teams, particularly dealing with Spain’s size,” Bryant said. “They’re much bigger than we were, with Pau and (brother) Marc and they know how to use it. We did a great job battling them.”
Although the United States was always favored to win, Spain is regarded as the second best team in the world. Spain, however, had to play without one of its biggest stars, Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in April. Still, Spain had a strong lineup and showed its strength against Team USA.
Spain jumped out to an early 12-7 lead, then Team USA roared to a 25-16 advantage, with Anthony scoring seven of the last nine points in the rally. But Spain came back to trail 59-58 at halftime, and the United States still led by only a point, 83-82, going into the fourth quarter.
“We kind of just wanted to go out there and do what we do,” Bryant said. “The closer the game got, the more intense we got, the more focused we got.”
Added James, “I had four fouls, but I wasn’t going to end with four fouls. So when I got back into the game (with 3:20 left), I wanted to be aggressive and I was able to get a lane to the rim, get a dunk and then I was able to make a big 3.”
Defensive stops were key, and Krzyzewski credited Kevin Love as the “unsung hero” for his battles inside. Love led Team USA with nine rebounds, six defensive.
Paul had a key play with a twisting, driving layup for a 104-93 lead with 51 seconds left. Krzyzewski then emptied his bench for the waning moments.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” James said. “We didn’t want easy. A lot of teams have won gold easy. We didn’t want it that way. We’re a competitive and we love when it gets tight; that’s when our will and determination kind of shows.”
Durant, the star of the 2010 FIBA World Championship team, was 8 of 18 from the field, hitting 5 of 13 3-pointers. “When we first got together, I was passing those shots up, taking extra dribbles,” he said. “Guys were getting on me early on, telling me to shoot. That’s what I did.
“Luckily, those shots went in for me.”
This was the 14th gold medal for the U.S .men’s basketball team.
“I would think that the basketball people in our country realize this is a great win for us,” Krzyzewski said, “and I think we should expect excellence. And if you have excellence you have a greater chance of winning, but the other person can be excellent, too. Spain was excellent, too. They were not deserving of losing with their effort.”
As the players rejoin their NBA teams, Paul said the victory was bittersweet. “It’s sweet to have this gold medal around your neck,” he said, “but it’s tough because you don’t get this opportunity any more. I hate that in a couple of months, these guys are going to be my enemies.”
Karen Rosen is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.