Among all the fans wearing LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, and Yao Ming jerseys before the much-anticipated U.S.-China basketball game Sunday night, Men Yong Fan, a graduate student at Peking University, had high hopes for his country's historic moment against the United States. "I'm Chinese, so I wish China can sort of beat the U.S.," says Fan. "As a Chinese guy, I hope my country has no regrets." Fair enough. I started to walk away, when Fan tapped me on the shoulder. "By the way, I love Kobe."
Fan could feel fulfilled on Sunday night. Kobe Bryant unveiled a cornucopia of crowd-pleasing slams that rallied the U.S. to a comfortable 101-70 win over China on Sunday night at the jam-packed Olympic Basketball Gymnasium. And though his country lost to a loaded American hoops squad, China should shoulder no regrets. Sure, it got bounced by a superior United States team that, by the way, is quite beloved by the host country. But the game, anticipated to be one of the most-watched hoops contest in history, still generated more buzz than anything the NBA can offer.
With some 1 billion people watching on TV, was this atmosphere like a Finals game? "Bigger, man," said Dwyane Wade, the 2006 Finals MVP from the Miami Heat who led U.S. attack with 19 points on a perfect 7-7 shooting night. "I haven't been this anxious to play a basketball game since I was like a kid. I couldn't sleep. I didn't even rest today, I was up the whole day just thinking about the game. It takes you to walk out on the court to feel it . . . It couldn't get no bigger than this."
Torrential rain could not keep away the rabid Chinese fans. Outside the arena a manicured bush shaped like a basketball greeted the eager hoopheads. One man, in a LeBron James jersey, had his picture taken with a Chinese flag draped over his shoulder. A child had a flag painted on each cheek one American, one Chinese. Another kid shaved his head, and all that remained were follicles shaped like the Olympic Rings.
Once inside, the fans were loud, yet always in control. Many shook noisemakers that featured three plastic hands stacked on top of one another; one was pink, the second green, and the third hand yellow. Made in China, of course. They screamed every time a Chinese player dunked - in warm-ups. The game lived up to its billing as a battle between rivals that share mutual respect. The Chinese fans cheered whenever the U.S. did something spectacular (and with Wade soaring, James blocking shots, and a full court press that created easy baskets, there were plenty of chances to show off).
Of course, Chinese fans weren't alone in the crowd. The game was the hottest ticket in town; fans from the Philippines, India, Senegal and the Solomon Islands checked in. And there was plenty of red, white and blue sprinkled throughout the arena. As the Chinese team ran onto the court, Brendan Kelly, a 13-year-old from Los Angeles, waved a Chinese flag, yet wore a Team USA shirt. Who was he rooting for? "China," he says. Why? "Because I'm pissed off at the government," he says. "They've lied to us in the past, and spent a lot of money on its military budget that can help the poor in our country, and help feed others in less fortunate areas." Well, if you hate the administration so much, why are you wearing that USA shirt? Says Kelly: "It's the only clean one I have."
The outspoken teen's team was blown out. And even if China had pulled off an upset, Team USA could have made it to the medal round. Still, it's hard to overstate how important this win was for the U.S. men. In 2004, Puerto Rico's drubbing of the U.S. drained the team for the rest of the tournament. The Americans shut down China's guards Bryant kept his vow to play D, applying choking pressure on Chinese point guards. The U.S. also caught a break; Yao Ming wasn't at full strength. Coming off a foot injury that ended his Houston Rockets season, Yao was slow and tired, often lingering behind on the fast breaks, doubling over to catch his breath. Though he sank a three-pointer for the first bucket of the game, sending the crowd into ecstasy, he finished with 13 points on an ugly 3-10 shooting night. "He's not where he going to be," says U.S. point guard Chris Paul.
The U.S. passed its first test, and with an easy game against Angola on Tuesday, will almost certainly cruise to the quarterfinals on August 20. For weeks, the U.S. focused on just getting past China, and the effort paid off. "We sent a real message," says U.S. forward Carmelo Anthony. "We're coming to regain our top spot."