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.”

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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.

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