They’re not getting paid. There’s free room and board and transportation and tickets to Olympic events, but not a nickel in the wallet from USA Basketball for anyone. You heard that right: The NBA superstars who have come here to take back the basketball supremacy that they see as their birthright are playing for nothing other than pride; pride in themselves, pride in their sport, pride in their country.
And they’re loving every minute of it.
NBA officials are thrilled about how things have gone for a team that had a lot to prove coming into the games. Even before the medal games are played, the feeling is that this team has already redeemed itself.
They’ve been living in a hotel in Beijing along with the U.S. women’s team. But they’ve hardly holed up there, even knowing that everywhere they go in this sprawling city they would be mobbed, in the words of guard Chris Paul, “like the Beatles.”
They’ve been to the Great Wall. They’ve gone sightseeing. They go shopping. They sign autographs tirelessly and have posed for pictures with literally thousands of locals and tourists. And on every opportunity, they’re showing up at other sports venues, cheering on their American Olympic teammates.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” a high NBA official who’s been to every Olympics going back to the original Dream Team appearance in 1992 in Barcelona. Back then, every athlete from every country wanted to see Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and the greatest team ever assembled just because of who they were. But over the years, as the Dream Team deteriorated in groups of self-centered individuals who felt as if they were doing the country a favor by playing – and playing badly – the basketball team never felt like a real part of the American delegation.
Not so here. On Monday, when the Redeem Team beat Germany into the court, half the U.S. Olympic Swim Team showed up to watch. But instead of the swimmers clamoring to meet the basketball players, some of the world’s most famous and highly paid athletes couldn’t wait to meet Michael Phelps and invite him into their locker room. He brought swim goggles for everyone, and many of the players wore them out of the arena and onto the bus.
Two days later, a half dozen team members got up not much past dawn to watch Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh dig and spike their way into the gold-medal round of the beach volleyball tournament.
“They’re getting out every day,” the NBA guy told me. “And they’re having the time of their lives.”
What a contrast from 2004 and Athens, where the team holed up on a docked luxury liner, lost early, started grousing about everything, and slunk home with a bronze medal. That team didn’t want to be in Athens, didn’t want to be together, couldn’t wait to get home.
After losing in Athens, the Americans still hadn’t fully grasped that it wasn’t enough to just show up. And too many NBA players didn’t want to give up their summers to play for free against international teams for which they had no respect.
That changed in 2006 when the United States lost in the World Championships. Finally, they got the point: If they didn’t dedicate themselves to the task, they weren’t going to get back to the top.
The big names signed on – Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade – and they checked their egos at the door. Jerry Colangelo built the team and Mike Krzyzewski, a college coach, molded it. By the time they came to Beijing, they were a dedicated unit determined to show the world not just that American NBA players are the best in the world, but also that they’re not the self-centered, spoiled brats that many people thought they were.
It’s easy to laugh at the old sayings about losing: it reveals character, it teaches valuable lessons. The sayings are, after all, invented by losers. You don’t hear people who have never lost talking about the value of losing.
But in this case, it’s true. In losing their world title, the Americans found they’d lost a lot more. The biggest loss was the idea of belonging to a real team, a group of stars that saw the group goal as more important than individual glory, a dozen very rich men going halfway around the world for no pay to pay for their own pride and that of their country.
Even with their dominating 31-point win over Australia Wednesday, they haven’t won anything yet. But no matter how they do from here on in, the NBA official felt the mission has already been accomplished.
“They’re going to go back home and tell all their teammates what a great experience this was and how much fun they had,” he said. “After Athens, nobody wanted to play for the national team. Now, everybody’s going to want to play in the Olympics.”