LeBron James and Kevin Durant celebrate after defeating Spain Sunday for the gold medal in London.
By J. Brady McCollough Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
LONDON -- This was how they envisioned themselves, coming in waves against the best the world had to offer, welcoming each mounting challenge as a way to measure their own place in history.
No team, no matter how tall, savvy or gritty, was going to beat them in a second half. Team USA did not want to be defined by its excess, but, ultimately, that was the quality that sent them victoriously into the corner of North Greenwich Arena late Sunday afternoon, enveloped by American flags and dancing together like friends who know they will share a moment forever.
That you could not see the individuals underneath the stars and stripes was just right.
Because Team USA's 107-100 win against Spain in the Olympic gold-medal game will not be remembered for LeBron James adding to his incredible, perception-altering summer, or Kevin Durant owning the role of America's best scorer at age 23 or Kobe Bryant leaving a sterling international career on top.
Personal narratives are for the NBA season, which is why the Olympics represent such a freeing, out-of-body experience for the league's superstars.
Sunday, there was no greater statement than the Americans waiting below the top of the podium as Russia received its bronze medals and Spain was adorned with silver. When the time came, Team USA players interlocked arms and took that final step in unison, letting out spirited yells as they took their earned and rightful spot.
"Twenty years from now, "we're going to look back on this and reminisce about how fun it was just to be around each other," Durant said.
"Forget the games, forget the shots we made, just being around each other on an every day basis and how close we became as brothers is going to be the best memories we have."
In a collegial atmosphere of squashed egos, one created out of necessity by Team USA basketball director Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski after the Americans didn't bring home the gold from Athens in 2004, it was easy to believe Durant.
He led the Americans with 30 points, making big shot after big shot to thwart Spain runs, but it wasn't too long ago that he came to camp timid and a shell of the fearless player who took the Oklahoma City Thunder on his back to the NBA Finals.
Playing in his first Olympics and accompanied by James, Bryant and company, Durant wasn't sure how he was supposed to play. It came as a surprise when the guys who are his most fierce competitors in the NBA were telling him to just go out and be Kevin Durant, which meant taking every open shot.
"I didn't want to be that guy," Durant said.
"Chris Paul was one of the main guys always telling me to be aggressive and shoot. I'd look over to my teammates, and, if I hit it, they're jumping up and down for me. They gave me confidence."
Durant's keen marksmanship kept his country in the game as Spain used its size to frustrate the Americans. Brothers Pau and Marc Gasol, when playing together, presented a front line Team USA couldn't match. Pau, who has made his name playing alongside Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers, had 24 points and eight rebounds.
The Americans led by one point at halftime, 59-58, and entering the fourth quarter, 83-82. Before the final quarter began, the five guys slated to play huddled up, and Paul, the point guard, got everybody's attention. He talked about how close they'd become as a team and how nobody thought they were capable of that. They'd have to show them one last time.
Team USA started to break through without James, who was on the bench with four fouls. When James came back into the game with about four minutes left, he vowed to be aggressive.
Leading, 97-91, James tricked the Spain defenders with a fake handoff that opened the lane for him to surge for a one-handed slam. The next time down, the margin six points again, James swished a 3 to make it 102-93.
With 38 seconds left, Coach K pulled his starters. James came to the sideline and shared a bear hug with the Duke coach, who will not lead Team USA any further. James and Coach K will be linked as the two guys who most made the gold medals from Beijing and London possible.
"He's the best player, he's the best leader, and he's as smart as anybody playing the game right now," Krzyzewski said. "We've developed a really close bond because I rely on him to be that for me, and he has been.
"I love my relationship with him. What a year, huh? NBA champ, MVP, gold medal. Only two players in the history of our sport have done this, [Michael] Jordan and [Bill] Russell, and for LeBron to join those two, he's worthy of [it]."
When the buzzer sounded, Bruce Springsteen's "Born In the U.S.A." blared across the arena. A ballad devoted to the American dream of hard work paying off, the song oddly seemed to fit the personality of this team of millionaires. Sunday, they relished the struggle.
"We didn't want it easy," James said.
"A lot of teams have won gold easy. We're a competitive team. We love when it gets tight. That's when our real determination kind of shows."
After more than a month of training and playing together with a common goal, Team USA's players simply weren't going to let each other down.
"I hate that in a couple of months, these guys are going to be my enemies," Paul said.
"This is the funnest time of my life. In 2008, it was all good and well. But there's something about this 2012 team that was just special. I hate this is our last game playing together.