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BEIJING 2008

They left others in their wake

Dream Team II? Sure, after the sleepwalking of recent years.

August 25, 2008|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- At long last, Dream Team II.

There was a time when people thought the Dream Team's successors would all get their own roman numerals, like Super Bowls, but that ended soon afterward, followed by the myth of the U.S. pros' invulnerability, until Sunday.

These Americans, who had beaten opponents by 32 points a game -- and this opponent by 37 -- found themselves in an actual contest but won it by outlasting Spain, 118-107, to take home their first gold medal since Sydney in 2000.

The U.S. had fallen in the 2002 and 2006 world championships, so even if it took only one Olympics off, this gold seemed like it was a long time coming.

Kobe Bryant, finisher extraordinaire, scored 13 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter, but this was a collaborative effort from beginning to end, when all 12 players came to the postgame news conference.

"We were at America's lowest point in '04," said Carmelo Anthony, one of four players on this team who took part in the debacle at Athens, where the U.S. lost three games.

"I think we did a hell of a job of putting America back where it's supposed to be, which is at the top of the world."

As becoming as the glory the team regained was the fact that it behaved so well, after years of arrogance and machismo.

Its solidarity and its killer defense -- at least until Sunday -- might prove as hard for its successors to live up to as the Dream Team's legend has been since 1992.

On the other hand, the U.S. now has an actual program with an actual boss: former Phoenix owner Jerry Colangelo.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski -- who said he was "ecstatic . . . ecstatic!" -- isn't expected to return, but after joking about bringing all the players back, Colangelo said five or six have said they want to return.

"We have plenty of time to sort through it, but they need some time off," Colangelo said. "They really do."

"Starting with me," Anthony said. "I've been doing this for four years."

With players making three-year commitments, playing hard and carrying themselves well, this team raised the bar for its successors, or picked the bar up out of the dirt where it had been rolling around.

"I think there's only one Dream Team, in my opinion," said Spain's Pau Gasol, who was 12 in 1992. "That Dream Team was something special, something unique.

"There's teams that could be close to it but not like that one. That team changed a lot of things in basketball and made a lot of young players want to play basketball and want to dedicate themselves to the sport.

"I think this team is really very good and played at a very, very high level all tournament and they're close to that team, but now I think there's nothing like that."

Gasol scored 21 points as he and his teammates traded baskets with the U.S. and stayed right with the Americans for most of Sunday afternoon.

With 8:13 left, Rudy Fernandez's three-pointer cut it to 91-89, for the first time raising the possibility there was a choke factor with the U.S. players, who finally might be feeling the weight of all their expectations.

It just didn't raise it for long.

Bryant then made one of his improbable 10-foot runners while moving laterally. The next time down, on a fastbreak, he found Dwyane Wade, who made a three-pointer.

Spain kept chasing, but the Americans weren't to be caught on this day or in these Games.

Leaving advertising slogans out of it, it was a remarkable effort. Colangelo and Krzyzewski built a belief in their goal that went beyond zeal into incredulity when the players started saying a gold medal was more important than an NBA title, which none had mentioned before.

Before every game, LeBron James would give NBC commentator Doug Collins a fist bump. After this game, the whole team came over for fist bumps.

Collins, who would have been the hero at Munich in 1972 in the controversial game the Soviet Union won, or was given, had been one of the many speakers brought in to talk to this team and had described the heartbreak he felt.

"He gave us such an emotional speech and it moved us all," Bryant said. "We all suffered the pain that he felt when he lost and we wanted to share this with him."

So 36 years later, this team did what it could to redeem Doug Collins too. That's what you call getting the job done.

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mark.heisler@latimes.com

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