By Jason Keidel
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At my professional peril, I confess to not only being proud of my five-borough birth, but also as a brushstroke in the larger, American mosaic.
I am the quintessential, Ugly American, wrapped in the flag, a nouveaux Hun with ample hubris and history behind me. Some of us haven’t forgotten that we saved the world 70 years ago, despite the dubious wars we’ve fought since. And I don’t buy this “One World” crap. We’re all equals, from Peru to Pakistan, until something needs fixing. Then some secret phone in the White House blinks and beeps, begging Daddy for help.
So it was with blinding pride and arrogance and romance that I watched the Dream Team redux yesterday, playing against a Spanish team ready to roll over at the sight of our glistening gladiators, ten-deep with future Hall of Famers, led by LeBron, the current king of the world. We were meant to dominate, show our hardwood hardihood before millions – if not billions – of shocked and disgusted patrons in London, so sick of our “imperialism.” We were destined to pull a Sonny Corleone, trashcan, hand-biting beat-down on anyone who stood between us and the top rung on the medal stand.
Funny thing happened during our stroll to gold. Spain didn’t care we had the 12 best players on the planet on the court. In fact, Spain took Dr. Naismith’s game and schooled us with ball movement and back-door cuts until our eyes bled and our ankles cracked.
Yes, the world has caught up to us in many ways, including the sport we invented and perfected. The Spaniards had nine players who spent time on NBA rosters. They were hungry, and they were good. Really good.
Deron Williams and Chris Paul panted while chasing Rudy Fernandez and his point guard brethren around the court, watching them dish pinpoint passes to cutting big men. Pau Gasol made Tyson Chandler – the reigning, NBA Defensive Player of the Year – look like a lost schoolboy who just got punked for his lunch money.
For the first time since my beloved Black & Gold played in a Super Bowl, I felt like a child before a big exam, nervous to the last corpuscle. We were being matched, shot for shot, drive for drive, foul for foul, on a level field. Spain wasn’t scared of us, of our outsized, rock star squad that was supposed to make a few perfunctory appearances on the way to collecting our precious metals. We were ahead by one, delicate point at halftime, likewise after three quarters, just a ten-minute buffer between humility or humiliation.
But Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant wouldn’t let this one slip though their bejeweled fingers. No doubt we played dreadful defense, aided by Spain’s clever playbook and textbook alacrity. But no one drops 100 points on us unless we’re a little lax in coverage. No matter, and no excuses.
If you’ve watched the NBA since Larry Bird and Magic Johnson saved the sport from extinction, you know that every championship team needs an assassin, someone who shoots the final shot in the fiercest game as if he’s alone, doing reps in an empty, cavernous gym, bars of dawn’s daylight cutting through the dusty windows. Durant and LeBron lofted poisonous daggers just beyond the arc, sealing the game, the gold, and our assumed place at the peak.
What’s so impressive about yesterday’s game, beyond the fact that Spain had a team that could win an NBA title, was our team’s fortitude. It was a microcosm of the American Dream. They played for a greater calling, their country, forgetting their status, their bulging paychecks, publicists and sponsors for, as LeBron so deftly stated, those three letters across their chests.
Time for a final, proper salute to Mike Krzyzewski… Coach K doesn’t even get a medal for having the mettle to coach these athletic savants, some with egos larger than their salaries, making them meld for something that makes all of us proud. As always, Coach K took the high road, giving all the credit to his All-Star subordinates, who in turn followed his modest example.
Representing the United States has been a murky endeavor, equal parts glory and gory. Cassius Clay won the gold in Rome, and then tossed his medal into a river, uncomfortable with a country that would flaunt him in Europe and flout his rights in Kentucky. Then he became Muhammad Ali and changed the world. A few young men in 1968 raised their gloved fists in Mexico with pride against prejudice.
Eventually, we listened. And we get better. Never perfect, but not to proud to improve. Even last night, as the boys in red, white, and blue celebrated they were serenaded by Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” which, as Richard Neer so astutely asserted, is hardly a song extolling our virtues.
Sadly, over the last two decades, Diversity has been the calling card of political correctness, little more than a pompous, corporate mantra. Diversity isn’t stuffing six cubicles with six ethnicities. Rather, it’s a voluntary endeavor, ignoring genes for dreams. Maybe you had to be from New York City in the 1970s and ‘80s to see how gorgeous it is when a group of disparate parts becomes whole. The Olympics are the rare time when we frame the ideal in idyllic hues.
And that game in London yesterday was a treatise on talent, tolerance, and prosperity. Just like their forefathers in 1992, the progenitors of the Dream Team, players from French Lick to Los Angeles, they came together for a cause. And they, like us, were best when simpatico, not separate.
We take the best of every shape and shade, an amalgam of creed and craft, and mold it into the American mosaic. It was too much for Spain, for the world, and it’s what makes us, the U.S., the best. And we shouldn’t be ashamed to say it.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.Jason@gmail.com
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