LeBron James now has two bronze medals.
Wonder if we'll see those in the Nike commercials?
Cheap shot? A little. And the NBA stars, predictably, are taking quite a beating, much worse than they absorbed from Greece, from fans and media back home about their failure to win the gold medal at the recently concluded World Championships.
Though the optimist in us notes that they went to the tournament to defeat the defending Olympic champions, Argentina, the best team in the world. And the U.S. did. For the bronze medal, as it turned out.
Though it's easy to find all sorts of reasons to blame the U.S. team — like the usual American hubris and arrogance as they kept calling the Greek players by their numbers and never learned their names, the lack of fundamental play of NBA stars, the failure to get the superstar refereeing calls they are accustomed to, the NBA's drive and kick game without hand checking that doesn't measure up well outside the leageue, and the familiar inability to make a shot against a zone — this was Villanova and Georgetown. Upsets happen in sports.
The U.S. team took Greece a little lightly and the Greek players had a lights out shooting night.
Good night, USA.
But what we did see is some eye openers about our stars.
Like the self proclaimed King James.
Perhaps we need to wait a little more until he is credited with also inventing the game. I thought James would be the MVP of the tournament, but he was exposed somewhat with an inability to shoot, especially at crucial times, as he missed shots and key free throws in the game against Greece. He was weak against the zone, especially. But more than anything, he seemed unwilling or unable to take over and carry his team at key junctures, eventually settling against Argentina as the setup man.
Look, James is terrific. You don't average over 30 per game in the NBA, as he did, and as a 21-year-old, without being a rare talent. But there remains some major holes in his game and, perhaps more than that, his ability to rise above the crowd. Perhaps that's asking too much now.
Though it appeared Dwyane Wade could always find a way to get to the basket even as tired as he seemed. And Carmelo Anthony looked — finally — like the guy who was going to be Bird to James' Magic.
If anyone rehabilitated himself in the tournament it was Anthony.
Sure, he bricked that last ditch three against Greece with a chance to get within a point, but he looked like the best player on the court in most games. Known more for his bizarre behavior off the court and self-centered play on it, Anthony was the U.S.'s most fearless player. He seemed the only one who truly wanted the big shot and looked the best shooting on a team that again seemed to lack a real perimeter game.
Perhaps the mess in Denver — with George Karl's demands and coaching and general manager changes, and Kenyon Martin's feud with Karl — has been the reason for Anthony's erratic, if sometimes brilliant, play in the NBA.
He comes home more than anyone on that team a winner with a gold medal of maturity and talent around his neck.
Bringing home the albatross is Wade.
He seemed at times to be carrying the load of the championship season on his back.
The truth is few NBA teams want their players at these international tournaments. Memphis owner Mike Heisley was one who joined Dallas' Mark Cuban in opposing their players' participation, if not preventing it. Cuban doesn't have to worry much as Germany wasn't quite good enough to extend Dirk Nowitzki very far.
But Heisley, who seems to be taking it well — publicly at least — suffered the nightmare: His best player sustained a serious injury. Pau Gasol could miss half the NBA season, which probably drops Memphis out of the NBA playoff picture, doubly worse as the team remains for sale. It hardly enhances the purchase price.
But guys should play. Stuff happens, and most play pickup ball all summer, anyway. Heck, they're better off often in the gym than left to their other activities. It's an honor and, I believe, a responsibility to represent your country in sports if asked. And it puts me on the other side of the issue with Cuban, which I always believe is the right ground to stake out.
But these tournaments have an effect.
Even playing golf most days and gambling most nights, Michael Jordan came back from the 1992 Dream Team for his toughest season. The Bulls had the fewest regular season wins that season of their six championship seasons and were down 0-2 to New York in the conference finals. It was after that championship that Jordan, exhausted and burned out, "retired" from the NBA for the first time.
I don't think that will be Wade's fate.
But it may be his toughest season. Everyone figures Shaquille O'Neal, having proven to Pat Riley you can win a title by building toward it all season in weight reduction and conditioning, isn't exactly going to be the picture of a sense of urgency. Wade, the competitor, figures to be. He's like Jordan that way in he doesn't like to lose any game he's playing. But it was Wade who carried the Heat back from an 0-2 9/10ths deficit (trailing by double digits with six minutes left in Game 3 is as close as you can come to being down 3-0) to the championship. Can he have that stamina again next June after playing more games last season than probably anyone in the world? We won't know until June, assuming the Heat gets that far, but he probably is being asked to do more next season than anyone in the NBA.
James, Anthony and Wade were the stars and core of this USA team and probably the next few to come. This World Championship to them was a lot more than just a third place finish.