Chris Paul moves the ball upcourt in the U.S. men's basketball team's 98-71 win against France Sunday in London.
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
First lady Michelle Obama congratulates Kevin Durant and the U.S. men's basketball team after its win.
By J. Brady McCollough Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
LONDON -- Fifteen minutes before tipoff Sunday of Team USA's opener against France, a man took the time to explain the rules of basketball over the public-address system at Olympic Park Basketball Arena, noting that the slam dunk was "the ultimate crowd-pleaser."
Ten minutes before tip, a hype man led the crowd in a karaoke session featuring The Beatles' "Love Me Do" and Oasis' "Wonderwall."
With five minutes to go, the teams gathered on opposite sides of the court and posed for official photos taken by a gaggle of photographers.
"Are you ready for a great game?!" the hype man bellowed.
In the middle of this peculiar pregame stood LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and the rest of Team USA, soaking up the moment and behaving in a manner that was downright collegial. When their names were called, they danced and swaggered and met each other in the air for a series of back bumps.
But surely the Americans weren't having that much fun. Surely they could take or leave these two weeks holed up in a London hotel surrounded by maximum security. Surely they would rather be enjoying their NBA offseason by sunning on South Beach or popping bottles in Manhattan than humiliating a dozen Frenchmen, 98-71. Right?
Maybe not. Maybe it meant something to them when first lady Michelle Obama doled out hugs and congratulations after their easy victory. Maybe internally, inside the Americans' locker room, this latest incarnation of the "Dream Team" model couldn't think of a place they would rather be.
"I've always wanted to play," Team USA point guard Deron Williams said. "I've been playing USA Basketball since high school. I think it's a special time. It only comes up once every four years."
Williams just signed a contract with the Brooklyn Nets reportedly worth $98 million over five years. He isn't here because he needs the brand exposure. He's here because playing in the Games makes him feel like the kid who was elated to represent his country on the national under-18 team.
This time, he wants to be a part of it all and share it with his family. He's looking forward to taking his daughter to beach volleyball, tennis, gymnastics, swimming and table tennis.
Williams and his superstar teammates had better enjoy these London Games. Because there are rumblings that NBA commissioner David Stern and the league's owners are strongly considering a push to only allow players who are 23 and younger to participate in the Olympic Games starting with Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
"If we send 23-year-old guys here to play against these grown men, we'll be in trouble," Bryant said after the game. "And when you look at the Olympics as a whole, it's about putting your best athletes to the front, to showcase. I don't see why it's even a topic of discussion."
Bryant was just getting started.
"Has there been anybody who's ever gotten injured?" he asked. "It's never happened. In fact, the opposite has happened."
Bryant sees Team USA's players performing better in the NBA. He listed James' three MVPs since Beijing and his own two world championships with the Lakers.
"I mean, am I missing something?" Bryant said.
In 1989, when the International Basketball Federation began to allow professionals to play in the Olympics, American basketball players immediately became the country's greatest athletic export. USA Basketball begged the NBA to cooperate, and the league begrudgingly agreed to let its stars risk injury and market themselves overseas without as much as a penny coming back directly to the league's coffers.
The 1992 "Dream Team" became legendary in Barcelona, Spain, winning its games by an average of 44 points. And it wasn't lost on anybody that the '88 U.S. team, made up of college players, only earned bronze.
In '96, Team USA repeated its gold-medal performance. But, by 2000, the rest of the world was beginning to catch up. The U.S. team took gold again, but showed that it was beatable, edging Lithuania in the semifinals by just two points. In '04, the Americans fell flat on their face in Athens, losing three games on the way to a bronze medal.
It proved that even with a team full of stars, America couldn't take gold for granted.
"The younger players always ask me how it was in 2004," Team USA forward Carmelo Anthony said. "It was an embarrassment. It was a defeated moment, like somebody stuck a pin in a balloon. We don't want to have that feeling again."
After Athens, former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo was appointed to rejuvenate USA Basketball. He did it by demanding a three-year commitment to international competition from the players and by hiring a coach who was also willing to commit to the cause, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.
Of course, Team USA reclaimed its spot at the top of the podium in '08, and entering these games, the debate has centered around whether the '12 team could beat the original "Dream Team."
But with the future of USA Basketball seemingly up for grabs now -- the NBA reportedly wants its stars to play in an FIBA-sponsored World Cup of Basketball instead of the Olympics -- arguing about which "Dream Team" is better seems like a distraction from what's truly at stake.
Team USA players were adamant Sunday that they want the choice of playing on the Olympic stage, and it may be up to them to keep their future dreams intact.
Point guard Chris Paul was thinking about his teammate with the Clippers, Blake Griffin, who injured his left knee training for the Olympics and missed out on London.
"It would be pretty disappointing," Paul said. "He couldn't play in 2016 if that comes into effect."
James is playing in his third Olympic Games. The idea that these could be his last hasn't sat well.
"I don't agree with it," James said.
"I'm 27," he said.
A quick glance at the U.S. men's basketball team's schedule in pool play and potential later rounds: