"Absolutely." The word almost knocked me to the floor, as if LeBron James threw his massive elbow into my puny chest. Did he really just say what I think he said? During a June interview for TIME's Olympic preview issue, I asked James if he could guarantee that the United States would win gold in Beijing. It was a throwaway question, a standard strategy sports journalists employ to see if an athlete will prematurely pump his chest. Sure, guarantees get overblown, but they do say a lot about an athlete. He or she is confident, even cocky, and willing to put a reputation on the line. Thing is, most athletes prefer to say nothing at all. Especially ones like LeBron, whose army of handlers get paid to insure their prized asset stays squarely on message.
So when James didn't dodge, I was shocked. Within an hour of the story's release in July, the guarantee was a talking point on Sportscenter, ESPN's wildly influential highlight show. It made headlines around the world. After the U.S. had performed so poorly in international competition for the previous six years the sixth place debacle at the 2002 World Championships, bronzes in the '04 Olympics and '06 worlds was James insane for offering bulletin board material? Not quite. Now that LeBron has fulfilled his promise, with America's 118-107 win over Spain on Sunday giving Team USA its first Olympic gold in eight years, we should applaud him for speaking his mind, and backing up his words.
Even though he almost had to eat them. During the first seven games of this Olympic tournament, the U.S. walloped every opponent by an average of 30.3 points per game. Spain, the defending world champion, had already suffered its humiliation, a 37-point loss to the Americans in the preliminaries. James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade: the Americans just had too much. Most fans expected another yawner.
Instead, they got a thriller. The eleven-point final margin belies the true fervor and pleasure of that last game, a true test for Team U.S.A. Both countries made a series of head-scratching shots, clutch three pointers, and pretty passes. "It will probably go down in history as one of the greatest Olympic games ever," James says. No argument here. After the game, he recounted the twists of the fourth quarter. Spain rallies, the U.S. gives itself some breathing room, another Spain comeback, more huge plays from the Americans. "I'm kind of crazy cause I'm watching the game all over again in my head," he told reporters. "The intensity of the game was unbelievable. I think you guys felt the intensity, so if you guys felt it, you know how crazy it was for us."
Spain started strong, building a five-point lead within the first five minutes. The team's point guard phenom, 17-year old Ricky Rubio, dazzled the crowd with a no-look pass for a Pau Gasol lay-up, and a behind-the-back shake of Jason Kidd. The youngest player to ever win an Olympics hoops medal, Rubio looks, and plays, like the legendary "Pistol" Pete Maravich. He's got the think dark eyebrows, floppy hair, and flair. NBA scouts are already salivating.
Then Dwyane Wade checked into the game. After a knee injury limited the former NBA finals MVP to just 54 games this season, there were actually questions about whether Wade would even make the Olympic team. But his fresh legs flourished. Team U.S.A.'s most consistent player throughout the tournament, Wade was spectacular on Sunday. His 21 first-half points helped give the U.S. a 69-61 lead at the break (he finished with a game-high 27). Though they trailed, Spain wasn't scared: both teams moved the ball, ran the break, and shot over 60% in the first half. Finally, a game worth watching.
It got even better after halftime. With eight minutes left in the game, Spain's Rudy Fernandez, who will play for the Portland Trail Blazers this season, sank his fourth three pointer he finished with five to cut the American lead to just two, 91-89. The place went berserk. China's fans love Team U.S.A. but they adore a close game even more. Time out, U.S. Could Spain really pull off a shocker?
It would have if Kobe had been kept out of China. "Everyone knows Kobe wants the ball down the stretch," says Gasol, Bryant's teammate with the Los Angeles Lakers. "They did what they were supposed to do." Namely, feed Bryant the ball. But unlike past years, Kobe didn't hog it every time. On the next four trips, Bryant made one of those wild shots in the lane that only he can hit, assisted on a three pointer, dropped a slick pass to Dwight Howard for an easy dunk, and a drained a trey of his own. The U.S. got the lead back up to nine.
Throughout the tournament, Bryant expertly adapted his game to the international style. He'd often get to the rim, and force the defense to collapse around him. Instead of forcing a shot, he'd find an open shooter around the three-point line, and flip the ball to him. "Everyone wants to talk about NBA players as selfish, as arrogant," Bryant says. "What you saw was a team today." With three minutes left, Spain cut the U.S. lead to five, but Bryant sank another three as Fernandez fouled him. Four point play. He put finger over his mouth: shush up, critics. Ugly Americanism? Not here. With so much at stake for Team U.S.A., you can excuse a little celebration.
And understand the team's feelings of vindication. The medal is especially precious for James. In Athens, he was a clueless kid who never got off the bench. During the TIME interview, he admitted he didn't respect what the Olympics meant. Plus, he got a fair amount of criticism for making that guarantee. Now, give him credit. Sure, the United States was pumped for these Olympics since the summer of '06, the year new U.S.A. basketball chief Jerry Colangelo and his choice as coach, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, gathered the core players of this team to start training for Beijing. They didn't need LeBronic hubris to help them. After they beat the world's top international teams by an average of 27.9 points per game in these Olympics, the U.S. probably would have won the gold regardless. But the promise still had an impact.
"The guarantee put us all on alert," says U.S. starting point guard Jason Kidd, who won his second Olympic gold medal and improved his international record to 56-0. "It helped. We had no problems with him saying that, we all believed it. When a teammate goes all out, we all go out. If your best player is going to say that, you're going to support him."
Shooting guard Michael Redd, who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, admitted LeBron's words didn't thrill all this teammates. "We wanted to take the low road, but LeBron's LeBron," Redd says. "He's going to say what we feels in his heart." But the Americans quickly got over the shock. "Look, man, LeBron is one of our leaders," says forward Carlos Boozer. "Every guy on this team backs him. He went out on a limb way back when and said, 'look, we can't be beat.'. And we weren't. So you might want to start asking him about stock tips and other things. He might be Nostradamus."
On Sunday, I caught up with James, who scored 14 points against Spain, after Team U.S.A.'s ebullient post-game press conference. I asked him if he was glad he made that guarantee. He didn't flinch. "Yeah," he said. "A lot of people doubted me, thought I was wrong for predicting it. I guess I can read into the future now." Here's an easy one, LeBron. With the way the Redeem Team performed in Beijing, the world will respect the America's game once again.