While it’s arguably the most popular “event” sport of the Summer Olympics in the U.S., Olympic Men’s Basketball is not the hottest story in London during these Games.
Yes, the participation of yet another 21st Century Dream Team with the likes of Kevin Durant, Lebron James and Kobe Bryant makes every Team USA game a primetime event on NBC back home. Here in England, the locals are much more interested in Team GB’s continued success on the football pitch, the feats of Usain Bolt during Track and Field or the cycling exploits of British Tour De France champion Bradley Wiggins.
In fact, following The Opening Ceremonies last weekend, the British tabloid press went after Bryant and other Team USA players for looking mildly bored as they entered the Olympic Stadium. In fairness, the modern versions of Dream Teamers do occasionally come off like representing their country at the world’s biggest sporting event is a bit of a distraction from the grinding schedule of their multimillionaire existences.
But, though the locals might turn away from technical fouls at tea time, the tickets to the Olympic Basketball venue within the Olympic Park in Stratford, London are still highly sought after by the masses attending the Games from around the world. With the exception of Bolt or perhaps Michael Phelps, there are no bigger international names at these Games than the NBA stars on Team USA.
So, when I settled in for a night of basketball inside the Olympic Park, I wanted to contrast the reaction to the different teams that would hold court. There were two games on tap that night – France vs. Argentina and Team USA vs. Tunisia.
The crowd was subdued during the opening tilt. Each squad had their cadre of fans rooting for their countrymen. But there were empty seats in the arena, despite the fact that Frenchman and NBA Star Tony Parker was taking on his San Antonio Spurs teammate Manu Ginobli. The game’s “warm up” vibe was a shame because it was a good tilt for the first three quarters with no more than five points separating the squads.
In the fourth quarter, French guard Nando De Colo – yet another San Antonio Spur – gave his team a little bit of joie de vivre, leading to a 71-64 France win.
Then, as I watched, the crowd became more polished somehow – as though evolving into something a little better heeled and a little prettier. American NBA fans able to afford airfare to London, a hotel room during the Olympics and a ticket to Team USA are not bouncing out of the backstreets of Newark. This gene pool was dribbling uptown. as Team USA fans took their seats.
But, these American fans weren’t too cool for the room – allowing themselves a little hootin’ and hollerin’ for their trouble. The noise level in the arena skyrocketed as Team USA took the court. Some of that tumult was due to every fan in the joint seeing cagers they knew from the headlines – but most of it was the U.S. fanatic contingent geared up to watch their team take another step toward the Gold medal they simply must win (or else face humiliation for the rest of their basketball lives).
In this preliminary round, the result was never in doubt. It was Tunisia, for chimp’s sake. But this Team USA is leaving a familiar pattern. Like their ancestors before them, they open each game playing like they’re still in bed, as if humoring their opponents. In this case, Tunisia hung around for much of the early going. Then, Durant and company got mildly interested (or annoyed) and hit a switch that activated a sort of doomsday weapon.
That megaton basketball bomb landed on Tunisia to the tune of 110-63. All fans in attendance left satisfied to have watched young men who are the best in the world at what they do in fact do what they’re the best in the world at – if I might torture a phrase and end a sentence with a preposition.
The only question left to be answered on the hardwood of London 2012 is the same one that’s dogged this Team USA from the moment it was forged: Will these guys cruise to win it all – or will they stumble and blow the medal that was forged with them in mind?
Stay tuned. The Brits probably won’t.
Special thanks to Annie Kearney for her assistance in fact-checking this article.