London 2012 basketball: Dark days make U.S. gold shine brighter
LeBron James and Kobe Bryant own National Basketball Association, Olympic and world championship titles and their trophy cases are packed with individual honours. By Steve Keating.
Yet for all their success, two of the world's most famous athletes celebrated the United States' 107-100 gold medal victory over Spain in the London Games basketball final on Sunday as if it was the first thing they had ever won.
It would be easy for the mighty Americans, 130-5 in Olympic competition and winners of four of the five golds on offer since NBA players began taking part in the Games, to be blase about the successful defence of the crown they won in Beijing.
But James and his U.S. team mates were taking nothing for granted with memories of past failure fresh in their minds.
James and head coach Mike Krzyzewski were part of USA Basketball's darkest days when the country's status as the world's undisputed superpower in the sport was questioned after third-place finishes at Athens 2004 and the 2006 worlds.
Thoughts of those failed campaigns made Sunday's 107-100 win over a plucky Spain side even sweeter.
"Between coach K, CP (Chris Paul) and Melo (Carmelo Anthony), we've been through it all," said James, brushing the gold medal hung around his neck.
"We were part of the rebuild of the USA team trying to get back to where it was before. I was part of it in 04, me and Melo, that was the lowest point for the USA team.
"Then coach K took over and we lost the world championship 06 but we made that three-year commitment from 05. We were able to win the worlds in Las Vegas and then gold in 08.
"It has been a long road for USA basketball and I'm just happy to be in a position to say I had something to do with us being back on top," he added.
For a player associated only with success, it is easy to forget that James has also known failure.
Drafted into the NBA as the number one overall pick by the woeful Cleveland Cavaliers, James laboured for years to lift his team to a title before turning his back on the city and signing for Miami Heat where he has realised all his basketball dreams.
In June, James celebrated his first NBA title by leading the Heat past the Oklahoma Thunder and two months later he was collecting his second Olympic gold medal.
To cap his season, James also won the league's most valuable player award for a third time along with NBA finals MVP honours.
However, for James the thrill of victory, especially at the Olympics, never grows old.
The sheer joy the men displayed following their gold medal win was in sharp contrast to the U.S. women's team's muted celebrations following an 86-50 romp over France on the same hardwood a day earlier that earned them a fifth straight gold.
Unbeaten since a bronze medal win at the 1992 Barcelona Games, not a single member of the current U.S. women's team has known the sting of an Olympic defeat.
James explained that it was the losses that taught the men to savour every win.
"It was definitely a different attitude towards the game and what it meant to really represent your country," reflected James.
"I don't think we all understood that, I think we were all putting on the uniform and thought we could just come together in two, three weeks and win just because we had great individuals.
"It was a long journey but I guess eight years later we have two gold medals and a world championship." DM
Photo: Members of the U.S. men's basketball team pose with their gold medals during victory ceremony at the North Greenwich Arena during the London 2012 Olympic Games August 11, 2012. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson