Following a disastrous performance at the Athens Olympics in 2004, where Team USA managed only a bronze medal (disastrous relatively speaking), the United States Men’s National Team was out for blood in Beijing. The process began immediately after Athens, with the hiring of famed Coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke University in 2005. Not only did Coach K overhaul the program, demanding a firm commitment from its players rather than treating the Games like their summer vacation, but perhaps his experience of dealing with overconfident teenagers was exactly what was needed to bring back down to earth a team that clearly had no respect for opposing teams in 2004.
Whilst basketball is obviously extremely popular in the United States, European basketball was surging in the early 2000s, and the standard had begun to start closing the gap on the dominant American teams of the 80s and 90s. The reborn USA team cruised to the finals, hardly breaking a sweat to win each game by an average of 30 points. On the other side of the bracket, Spain went through a gauntlet of tough opponents in gruelling games before eventually coming up against the American titans. The result: the greatest game of basketball ever played.
TEAM USA Starting Line-up
SPAIN Starting Line-up
|Guard||Juan Carlos Navarro|
Considering Team USA obliterated Spain by 37 points in their first encounter in the group stages, many expected Spain to come out of the gates timidly, still scarred from the last outing. What followed, was 40 minutes of the exact opposite. Whilst the American game typically favours a man-to-man defence, European basketball often chooses to use of zone defence, with an emphasis on teamwork and quick rotations by the entire squad to plug up any holes. However, the first intriguing aspect about this match is that Spain decided to play Team USA at its own game, and came out in an aggressive, man-to-man defence. With the 3 point line being several feet closer in the Olympics than in the NBA, the American players were scoring jumpshots for fun when given the slightest space to operate. However, by stepping out to each man and closing down the offensive player, Spain would then leave themselves vulnerable to being attacked directly at the basket. Stand too far from Carmelo Anthony and a 3 pointer would soon be sailing over the defender’s head. Stand too close to a 23 year old Lebron James and watch the trail of smoke as he bursts by you on the first step. Spain Head Coach, Aito Garcia was forced to pick his poison. Neither option was ideal.
One of the most fascinating aspects which generated a considerable amount of hype before the game was the story of Spanish Point Guard, Ricky Rubio. Whilst the United States is at times incredibly ignorant of the talent which is produced overseas, rumours of the 17 year old star had started to make its way across the Atlantic. For many international spectators, this would be their first look at Rubio. The only slight problem was that his opposite number, Jason Kidd, is to this day considered one of the very best Point Guards to ever play the game. If Rubio were nervous about going up against one of the best perimeter defenders of all time, he certainly did not show it. At 3 minutes into the first quarter, the fans got the chance to see for themselves why everyone was talking about Rubio. Starting at half-court, the 17 year old floor general calls for help before abandoning his plea in favour of going directly at Kidd, before craftily taking a lone dribble behind his back, shielding the ball from Carmelo Anthony’s attempt to strip it, and finishing delicately at the basket whilst the USA bench looks on in disbelief. It was a moment of pure magic. However, if Spain were to win this game, they would need 40 full minutes of magic.
A lucky break came for Spain moments later when both American superstars, Lebron James and Kobe Bryant picked up quick fouls and were sent to the bench for the rest of the quarter. This, however, turned out to be a curse rather than a blessing, as Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade took the court. Despite starting on the bench, Wade let it be known that he was one of the world’s best, and seemed to be playing with a chip on his shoulder, much to the chagrin of the Spanish defenders, who struggled to stay in front of the slashing Guard. This also illuminated another problem for Spain: that Team USA’s bench alone would be one of the best teams to ever play in the Olympics. With stars like Chris Paul subbing into the game, Team USA never missed a beat on both the offensive and defensive end. At the end of the 1st quarter, Team USA led 38-31.
For Spain, it became clear that their nation’s hopes would largely hang on the broad shoulders of their most recognisable face, Pau Gasol. Fortunately Gasol, who was teammates with Kobe Bryant on the Los Angeles Lakers had just won the NBA Championship several months prior was on fire the entire game. Team USA’s centre, Dwight Howard, despite being an unbelievable physical presence at 6’11 and 265 pounds, had yet to fully refine and perfect his interior defence. The European game, somewhat stereotypically, places more of an emphasis on footwork and positioning. Whilst often the immense physicality and athleticism which the American players have in abundance can make up for any lapses in concentration or bad positioning, on this occasion the chemistry of Spain managed to exploit the defence to find tiny, momentary gaps. When they had their chances, they converted almost all of them. By this point, Marc Gasol, Pau’s younger brother, had checked into the game, and it became apparent to the world that both brothers Gasol were a real threat.
The problem was any missed opportunity for Spain would almost certainly lead to a basket on the other end of the court. A rare miss from the elder Gasol bounced to Chris Paul, who had both the vision and pinpoint accuracy to launch the ball the entire length of the court to find a surging Kobe Bryant mid-air, half a foot from the basket. Needless to say, the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player does not miss many like that. By the half-way mark, Team USA had extended their lead to 8 points. However, Spain could be encouraged from their sharpshooter, Rudy Fernandez, who had just entered the game to drill back to back 3 pointers in the face of Lebron James and Tayshaun Prince. Fernandez, known for being a streaky shooter who on any given night could either be ice-cold or downright on fire. For Team USA, hopefully it would be the former, else a repeat of the 2004 Olympics in Athens could be on the cards.
Spain manage to trim the lead to 6 points early in the 3rd quarter, as Kobe Bryant is called for travelling: a violation often not called in the NBA but that is fiercely adhered to internationally. With the legs of the 35 year old Kidd struggling to keep with the 17 year old Rubio, captain Kobe Bryant decides to take on the young prodigy himself. This ends up having something of an adverse effect, as now Kidd was guarding Juan Carlos Navarro. Whilst maybe not especially well-known in the States, in Eurobasket “La Bomba” was absolutely feared for over a decade. For good reason. One on one, Navarro was almost unguardable, his signature shot a high arcing flick off of one foot regularly left defenders dazed. When the American defence eventually adjusted (by this point Navarro had cut the lead to just 4 points), La Bomba would just wait to draw the defence out to the 3 point line before swinging the ball to Forward, Felipe Reyes or either Gasol brother under the hoop for an easy 2 points. Lebron James managed to steal back momentum for Team USA and reopened the lead to 11 points. Navarro manages to out-manoeuvre Deron Williams, yet another Guard thrown at him by Coach K, for another signature floater, this time off the left hand, to end the 3rd quarter USA 91-82 Spain.
With just 10 minutes left to decide who would get the gold, it was truly the time for the stars to shine. A beautiful cross-court bounce pass from Rubio skims under Lebron James to find Fernandez for a deep 3 pointer. It is a 2 point game with 8 minutes to go. With arguably one of the greatest teams ever assembled, Team USA are on the ropes. In their moment of need they turn to their captain, Kobe Bryant. The Black Mamba proceeds to take over the game near-enough singlehandedly. It is incredible to see an army of superstars, who have all played at the highest level in the NBA, look visibly uncomfortable at the crescendo of this game. It is a testament to Bryant’s legacy that in the darkest moments of the game, time and time again his teammates deferred to him to take charge. However, Bryant has built a career on silencing crowds, and is clearly up for the challenge. A slick pass from Deron Williams leads to a wide-open 3 pointer for Kobe, who is now calling for the ball on every possession.
My previous suggestion that the Spanish team was not as athletic as the United States squad seems ever so slightly ridiculous in light of the following possession, as Rudy Fernandez decides not to shoot the 3 pointer, and instead drive directly at Howard, jumping over the titan for a vicious slam-dunk. Spain seemed to have embraced their physicality, as moments later a rock-solid screen from Marc Gasol floors Chris Bosh and leaves big brother, Pau wide open for 2 points.
With the lead trimmed to just 5, the ball bounces to Bryant who essentially kills the game. Draining the deep 3 pointer, despite being clipped by Fernandez, sends Kobe to the free-throw line for 1 extra point, and Fernandez to the bench for the rest of the game having received his 5th and final foul. David Beckham looks on in awe. Spain continue to grind, but Bryant and Chris Paul continue to apply the pressure until eventually Team USA prevail 118-107.
Spain are clearly crestfallen, but the handshakes and hugs at the end of the match seem to show an obvious mutual respect. It takes two to tango, and both teams just put on and incredible showing. An extra embrace is shared between teammates Bryant and Gasol, who would go on to win the NBA Championship together once again the following season.
Ultimately, the game answered a lot of questions. Despite Lebron James being touted as the next Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant was still the number one player on the planet. Ricky Rubio had the chance to show the world he was a prospect who would in fact be able to cut it in the NBA. His performance under the bright lights here as well as the following season at Barcelona even lead to him being drafted higher than Stephen Curry in the NBA Draft! What’s more, international basketball had clearly climbed to the next level, and proved itself worthy of competing with the Americans. Finally, for Team USA, this was not only the culmination of a successful tournament, but rather it was the culmination of a complete rejuvenation of a stagnant basketball program which was built on old egos and ethoses. The fact that Coach Mike Krzyzewski did not receive a gold medal in Beijing is most unfortunate, but his legacy will attest that he played a pivotal role in giving us one of the most entertaining and iconic games in basketball history.
The condensed version of the game should be available here: Enjoy! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eHxLqT21r8
Featured Image @ Olympic Channel]