How Team USA Won Men’s Hoops — and the Entire Olympics

For America, a gritty basketball win over Spain tops off a spectacular Olympics, across all sports

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Sergio Perez / Reuters

LeBron James, right, of the U.S. celebrates with Kevin Durant during their men's gold-medal basketball match at the London Games on Aug. 12, 2012

The Olympics do a bad job of rewarding the country that turns in the best all-around performance, across all sports. Why not, at the closing ceremonies, drape gold, silver and bronze medals around athletes from the top three nations? It would be a fitting final act for the Games.

But how do you rank the countries? What if you had a situation like Beijing, where the U.S. won the most medals, but China won the most golds? Well, I would like to propose a ranking system that my grade-school summer camp used in its version of the Olympics (while also proposing that one of our events — “who can hold their breath underwater the longest?” — become an Olympic sport). Give five points for each gold medal, three for silver, one for bronze. Pretty fair and easy, no? Under such a system, China would have edged the U.S., 346-330, in 2008.

In London, however, no math needed. The U.S. won the Olympics, hands down.

The U.S. finished the 2012 Olympics with the most medals overall (104), most golds (46) and the most silvers (29). Using the points system, the U.S. trounced second place China, 346-293. The U.S.’s most exceptional and high-profile team — the men’s hoops team, with LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant et al. — finished off an exceptional Olympics on Sunday, as the U.S. grinded out a 107-100 gold-medal win against Spain.

Durant led the way with 30 points. In the beginning, Spain started out in a soft zone, daring the U.S. to win the game at the perimeter. “You’ve got to pick out poison with us,” says Durant. The Oklahoma City Thunder star started out cool, but carried the team early in the fourth quarter, as Spain kept things close. “I’m going to shoot. My teammates are always telling me to shoot the ball and be aggressive,” he says. “Once I see the ball go in once, I feel good after that.”

(MORE: Will the WNBA Benefit from Olympic Gold?)

The U.S. is feeling good about these Games. But no American turned in the most mind-bending performance of the Olympics. Usain Bolt gets that award, even if he did not break any of his own world records (though his Jamaican 4 x 100-m relay team set a new world mark on Saturday night). Nor the most heart-racing: Mo Farah’s wins in the 5,000-m and 10,000-m races, with 80,000 roaring fans at the Olympic Stadium pushing him down the stretch in each one, were pure adrenaline rushes. For good reason, Farah’s golds left many British fans in tears.

Great Britain’s success — the country had its best Olympics since 1908 — brought a palpable joy to London. The Games are changing the country’s perspective on sports. The papers are practically begging the British government to increase funding for sports in schools, and to go for more gold in Rio, despite the tough economic times. These Games meant more to Great Britain than they did to the U.S.

Still, the U.S. can take pride in its dominance. Whether it was Michael Phelps going out with a bang with four more golds, or the U.S. women’s gymnastics team taking its first all-around gold since 1996, or Gabby Douglas becoming the first African-American to win the all-around women’s gymnastics title, or Kayla Harrison becoming the first American to ever win judo gold, or diver David Boudia winning the 10-m platform title, upsetting two top-ranked Chinese divers, Qiu Bo and Lin Yue, and widening the medal gap between the two countries, America shined.

Though a basketball gold was expected, the sport has become a surprise model for Olympic success. In Athens, just eight years ago, USA Basketball was in disarray. Puerto Rico blew out the Olympic team in the opener, and Team USA, long the global hoops power, finished with a bronze. The team was cobbled together at the final moment. The prevailing philosophy: we can just roll out the balls and win gold. “People thought we could put on a uniform and go out there in two, three weeks,” says James, who played on that team after his rookie season.

Post-Athens, however, basketball came up with a long-term plan: ask players for a multiyear commitment, so they could develop the kind of camaraderie that their opponents, who have often played together since they were teenagers, enjoy. Five of the 2012 gold-medal basketball players — James, Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Deron Williams — also won gold in Beijing. Five more played on the 2010 world-championship team. “We have as good a bond as any team in the tournament,” says Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Prior to the Olympics, this team suffered a rash of injuries; Derrick Rose, Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard all went down. The team came to London with only one true center, Tyson Chandler. Was it big enough to play with a team like Spain, fronted by the Gasol brothers, Marc and Pau, two of the best big men in the NBA? Luckily, Team USA had a deep pool of talent. “With the infrastructure in place, you can take your lumps, you can take your injuries and still be able to not only compete, but win,” says USA basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo. “People said, ‘what are you going to do with all the bigs?’ Well, what are they going to do with our athleticism, quickness and speed? I’ll take that all day long against big. Because what usually goes with big is half-a-step slow. Quickness and speed — that’s where this game is today. And that’s what we’re showing.”

For the U.S. Olympic delegation, the win was a fitting conclusion to a wildly successful Games. Chief London Olympic organizer Sebastian Coe, for one, predicted that China would finish first in the medal count. “I told him in April we were going to work very hard to prove him wrong,” says U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) president Larry Probst, at a press conference wrapping up the Games. “We like to come in first. There’s nothing wrong with that. This is a competition.”

How did the USOC win the Olympics? It has been very transparent about its strategy: invest in sports that could yield medals, even if others go underfunded. Water polo, for example, has received more support: the U.S. women rewarded the USOC with a gold. This method leaves athletes in some lesser sports, like synchronized swimming, smarting. If we had more money, they think, we’d be better off (and better able to pay the rent). But it’s hard to argue with the results.

All-around gold.

MORE: The Olympic Games in Motion

37 comments
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harry1221
harry1221

Mr. Gregory,

I am afraid you missed the whole idea of what the Olympics is all about. 

whatchoo
whatchoo

Dmitriy, the USSR no longer exists because that "country" sucked. Sorry, points are given for being able to remain a unified country.

whatchoo
whatchoo

Your medal points system is asinine for one reason, but it's not your fault - everyone else has missed the boat on the following, as well: it is LUDICROUS to not recognize a higher value for medals won in the team competitions (Volleyball, Water Polo, Basketball, Soccer, even Handball, etc.).

Why? Because any system that doesn't is a joke. Are you going to tell me that Badminton should have six golds to hand out, so a country that dominates in that sport gets six gold medals, while progressing through an entire soccer tournament and winning the gold medal game yields a single medal, with all those great athletes involved? Certain Olympic team finals are recognized as among the "marquee events" of the Olympics - any medal count system should recognize their greater value.

How can dominance in a sport that requires more effort in constructing an entire team, involves more exceptional athletes, and, at least in the major sports, is a much more central part of each Olympiad's narrative often yield 1/6th the medal haul of these minor, specialized sports? Like I said, it's LUDICROUS.

True team sports should receive medal multipliers to put them on par with the events like ping pong that hand out multiple medals. Multiply by the highest number of medals available in any specialized sport, dominated by one and challenged for by at most two or three countries, and give half as large or one third a multiplier to the "pseudo" team events, like team gymnastics, etc. I'm not positive the latter is a good idea, but I am positive that the former is essential to what should be the goal - that statistics should attempt to reflect reality.

And if this reads as an argument that says China doesn't actually do as well as the various wins by their test tube athletes, bred in specific disciplines to medal in non-team events, would suggest, well, that's right on. We OWNED these Olympics - even more completely than you think. Major credit to the host country for putting on tremendous Games, and also for their great medal success. And yes, USA! USA! All the athletes of the world were wonderful, but I really loved the superlative team that the USA sent to London. They were an inspiration to us all.

O_Pinion
O_Pinion

Whatchoo, Thanks for your comments. Some of them actually made sense, so I will give you a couple of marks for that. Better than you countryman Joe Heller. He is definitely a couple of cans short of a six pack. Barks like a rabid dog. I hope he doesn't have a Jewish postman. 

Still you guys are sooo sensitive. You need to lighten up. Its a big world out there. If you went and got a passport you might actually find there are some real nice people out there. Not sure about your last comment though - stating that Time is a US publication - pretty irrelevant really. If you want to advocate we non-Americans don't use US products that makes real economic sense! Duhh.

whatchoo
whatchoo

Did I say that Time being a US publication was important? I certainly don't see any such statement in the post you are responding to.

Yacko
Yacko

On giving medals to teams at the end - 5 points gold, 1 point silver and 0 points bronze.

And for the individual events, how about a last place medal? A sharp-edged medallion stamped from rusting sheet steel.You have to stand below the podium on one leg while your national anthem is played on kazoos.

Dmitriy_T
Dmitriy_T

USSR                       47 44 73   164

United States       46 29 29   104

China                       38 27 22   87

United Kingdom 29 17 19    65

Russia                     24 25 33    82

South Korea         13  8    7      28 

Shahdler
Shahdler

Not a surprise. If you look at the medal table, number of medals a country got is proportional to the country's GDP (USA 1st, China 2nd).

However, in terms of the sources of the medals, China is more evenly distributed across all fields, while the US is too limited to 2 fields (athletics and swimming) and a few individuals (Phelps). Overall, I think China has a better overall performance.

Shahdler
Shahdler

Not a surprise. If you look at the medal table, number of medals a country got is proportional to the country's GDP (USA 1st, China 2nd).

However, in terms of the sources of the medals, China is more evenly distributed across all fields, while the US is too limited to 2 fields (athletics and swimming) and a few individuals (Phelps). Overall, I think China has a better overall performance.

whatchoo
whatchoo

 Ha ha ha ha ha, you are high. China won over half of its gold medals in the highly specialized sports of badminton, ping pong, weightlifting, and diving. FOUR sports. All participated in avidly and at the highest levels by a pitifully small handful of countries. Add in the real sports of gymnastics and swimming, and there are 29 out of China's 38 Golds, or more than 76%.

Add in the preposterous "sport" of trampoline, a sop to the Chinese so that they can win yet another freak show "sport," and you've got 30 of China's 38 Golds.

I may be a liberal democrat, but that doesn't mean that I find America-haters any less stupid and pathetic. I love my country and WE JUST KICKED ***!!!!

"Sources of medals" - puh-leese. And add in that real team sports should be counted more heavily than 1 to 1 - we whipped China during these Games something fierce.

piggy_04
piggy_04

Moreover, if you look at athletes info at london2012, you will see most US athletes are studying at uni or high school. Excelling in both fields impressed me more

piggy_04
piggy_04

You can't say US medals are limited to 2 fields. Swimming and Athletics have more competitions formats and US medals is not even half of those genre. I think TEAM GB is the one limited to track cycling as they grabbed 7 out of 10 golds in that genre. In terms of balls sports, TEAM USA rule though. It is quite a pity that TEAM GB can't even reach football semi final while USA took gold. In USA, no one cares about soccer.

O_Pinion
O_Pinion

Well actually the US was 49th on a per capita basis - pretty pathetic really considering the money you Yanks throw at sport. Still in the "blow your own trumpet" event you are a clear winner.

wandmdave
wandmdave

We'd be ranked higher if there were no limit to how many athletes we could field in each sport.  We probably could have swept the basketball medals with A,B, and C squads.  Our world champ gymnast wasn't even able to compete in the all around because she got beat out by her two teammates.  I'm sure we have other swimming and track stars that are left at home because there is a limit to entrants per country. China could probably earn more badminton, table tennis, and diving medals if they could field more athletes as well.  We're probably ranked near dead last with China, India, and perhaps Russia in participants per capita so its not surprising our medals per capita is skewed low.

I think those limits are a good thing to allow other countries to get some glory but your medals per capita stat isn't really a valid metric until those limits are removed.  I'm sure all of the countries at the top of the medal standings including the US and China would love that too.

omegafrontier
omegafrontier

Medal per capita is a retarded calculation, it was made up to be a parody of GDP per capita.  But I see that it caught up with morons. 

However, I would say a better a calculation would be: Nation's total medals divided by total Nation's athletes participated.

O_Pinion
O_Pinion

Use whatever metric you like. The fact is once you weight medals won by population, GDP etc. the US is not as good as you might overinflated egos might like to imagine. Still if it makes Bubba proud that the Yanks win the "World Series" Baseball every year thats OK.

whatchoo
whatchoo

I'm not keen on everything about my country, but we're supposed to be penalized for the fact that lots of people want to live here, even in the current doldrums, we still have, on a relative basis, an extremely strong economy, and the best of us believe in opportunity for our countrymen and women of every race/ethnicity/religion? And for the fact that we have respect for at least the sporting ability of 1/2 of our population, as we value our female athletes?

Here's a metric - we did the most ***-kicking at these Olympics of any country. And as my "factoring in team medals appropriately" metric shows, we kicked even more *** than is shown by the standard medal table. And this is a U.S. publication you are taking the time to infect with your jealous comments. Deal with it.

Vincent Lovece
Vincent Lovece

 What's this with the "per capita" nonsense? Population is almost irrelevant. If population mattered in the least, India would be close to the very top.

Joe Joesph
Joe Joesph

Actually, if you didn't have sub par intelligence you would have understood that your metric is worthless. Why? Well, I'll explain it to you. There are only a very small number of sports. Therefore, any country with a large population like the US, China, India, etc. will be at a disadvantage in that metric, ergo, it is worthless. A better one is athletes per medal which the NY Times (clearly biased in your favor so don't complain) published last week. It had America as 4th with two FORMER Nations occupying spots- #1 East Germany and #3 Soviet Union.  You should have done your math homework in school. It would have prevented you from looking like an ignoramus.  I see you left Israel out of your metric...lol...do they stink there as well. Bwahahaha....

O_Pinion
O_Pinion

Now I know where the term "Joe Blow" comes from. Brilliant deduction gumshoe that anyone non-American has to be Israeli. They should have put you in charge of the hunt for Bin Laden.

Joe Joesph
Joe Joesph

On a side note, ISRAEL did not win ONE, not ONE medal...lol. Many Arab nations, sub Saharan African nations, and other distressed nations won at least ONE medal. A developed nation with great wealth couldn't produce one world class athlete?? Hilarious. I guess when Israelis have to fight on equal footing and can't cheat, steal, or rob they don't do so well.

O_Pinion
O_Pinion

Actually I think you and Jake should fight it out for the "morons cage fight" title. Hard to pick a winner, but you may have it by a nose for morphing a discussion on the Olympics into an argument over who won the Six Day War.

Joe Joesph
Joe Joesph

Actually if you didn't suffer from poor reading comprehension (and math skills, see your post below), you would have understood that your fellow Israeli or dual citizen brought that up. You are sooo biased...so filthy. And you wonder why...

koenigsking
koenigsking

Really, dude? That's your version of political commentary?

There are more people in Mexico city than all of Israel. Not a big country, to say the least.

So how many high-tech inventions has Mexico given the world? (That question is rhetorical, BTW)

You are obviously an anti-Semitic fool. Let me know how those Muslims you cherish improve your life over the course of the next two generations.

Hint: It ain't gonna happen.

Joe Joesph
Joe Joesph

Israelis haven't invented anything of world significance. What's your point?? You are obviously an ignorant fool. Any good that comes out of Israel is because of your connections with Jews in other nations. You use those connections to, once again, steal what you shouldn't have. You siphon innovation from those host nations. As to not being a big country, neither is Norway, Sweden, Finland,  Qatar, UAE, etc. But none of those nations possesses the wealth and influence Israel has both as a nation and through connections with world Jewry. They win medals. Simply admit your problem...that you are ashamed of how pathetic Israel is. 

whatchoo
whatchoo

Except for all the incredible technology that comes out of Israel, as just a starting point. Your injection of ethnic hatred, antisemitism, and pure stupidity into a discussion about sport is pathetic. You should be banned, as you are a nuisance.

Jake Heller
Jake Heller

Israel did pretty good in the 1967 and 1973 Olympics.

Oh wait, those were the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars where they single-handedly owned nearly the entire Arab world. You mad?

Joe Joesph
Joe Joesph

Once again, propaganda. Yom Kippur you lost so badly that you threatened to use nukes if America did not resupply you. Six-day war was an air war. America gave you the advanced jets that were a generation better than the Arabs. You launched an unprovoked attack against Arab airfields. War of independence. You guys OUTNUMBERED the Arabs 100,000 Haganah terrorists, who invented Mid East terrorism against the British their saviors in WW2 and owners of the land now known as criminal Israel, outnumbered the 60k or so Arabs. Once again, you actually were LOSING. The Arabs ran out of supplies and all the rich Jews throughout the world bought and forced the US/Britain to sell all their surplus WW2 equipment to them.

Fast forward to the London 2012 Olympics...no cheating, no stealing, no manipulation. You have to play fair and square. What happened? YOU LOST...lol. Qatar won more medals than Israel...Bwahahaha...

whatchoo
whatchoo

 Joe, your understanding of history is severely flawed. Particularly absurd is your mischaracterization of a war like the Yom Kippur War, where a combatant that gained complete and total surprise (in a very dirty way, mind you), STILL managed to lose, shown conclusively by the fact that the world had to beg Israel to stop.

Mostly, though, you are a boorish jerk for injecting politics and ethnic hatred into an article about sport. So you hit the double here - you're a boorish jerk and your "points" are terrible. Please see yourself out.

Joe Joesph
Joe Joesph

@Jake I guess you just don't understand my point. You didn't win. America won it for you. YOU, the Israeli, LOST when you stood on your own. Just like the Olympics here. Even now with Iran, you are forcing America to do the "winning" for you. Pathetic. Grow up and stop being a criminal. Then just maybe you'll live in peace with Others. The problem is your mothers never taught you to learn to play nice with others...

Jake Heller
Jake Heller

I think they prefer having a country which, as you kindly noted, is developed and wealthy, over a bronze medal in dressage. 

"Yom Kippur you lost so badly that you threatened to use nukes if America did not resupply you."

They won that war.

"Six-day war was an air war."

Which they won.

"Once again, you actually were LOSING."

Key word: were.  They won that war.

omegafrontier
omegafrontier

A 1 ton rover on Mars and  104 medals in the Olympics, this must be the most exciting month for America this year.

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Joe Joesph
Joe Joesph

You're right! But the news is playing down triumphalism because we also DEFEATED the CHINESE. Our elites are afraid of them and so don't want to upset them with the TRUTH. Btw, America did this while in a Depression and unlike the Chinese don't have unlimited support nor do they pick the most promising children and start government training right away. The fact that we still win is something to be proud of. On another note, ISRAEL didn't win ONE medal, not ONE...lol

Leong Kp Kam Peng
Leong Kp Kam Peng

While China medals  were won by the homogeneous races. You take alway your minority blacks, which you have always discriminated against, how many medals would the whites have won?

So don't be so smug and get back to reality. The Chinese has already triumphed over you economically, politically and soon in every fields of sports! 

Vincent Lovece
Vincent Lovece

 So? Israel doesn't have a lot of resources to spare for Olympics when they are surrounded by Muslim dictatorships that want to drown them in the Mediterranean sea.

Jeffrey Geez Glavick
Jeffrey Geez Glavick

Yet Cuba an Island of 10 million people surrounded by the USA and it's embargo won how many medal's?

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