For five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant, it was his last Olympic moment.
“This is it for me,” Bryant told the Associated Press, after scoring 17 points en route to his second gold medal. “The other guys are good to go.”
The other guys Bryant was referring to are LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, who all played integral roles in Team USA’s 107-101 gold-medal game victory over Spain at the XXX Olympiad in London. The Americans captured their second consecutive Olympic crown, defending their title Sunday against Pau Gasol and the Spanish, in a rematch of the 2008 Beijing Olympic final. Although it was a collective effort from the star-studded U.S. squad –Durant scored 30 points, James had 19, Chris Paul finished with 11, Kevin Love chipped in nine points and nine rebounds and Melo dropped in eight– it was the immortal efforts of King James that willed the Americans to back-to-back gold medals.
It’s hard to build any case other than that LeBron is the best player in the world today. Bryant may be the best closer, but at 33, the wear and tear of the game has slowed the Black Mamba down a bit, making way for the 27-year-old James to take over. As he’d done the entire tournament, LeBron lifted Team USA –including Kobe– when they needed him the most. Bryant, who valiantly took over the gold-medal game against Spain in ’08, struggled mightily from the tip-off of the 2012 Games. As the Black Mamba remained dormant –Bryant found it difficult to discover his rhythm during the preliminary rounds against France, Tunisia, Nigeria, Lithuania and Argentina– James did his part to ensure that the Americans made it through the early matchups unscathed.
He played all five positions and did whatever head coach Krzyzewski asked of him. From scoring to being a floor general directing traffic –James recorded the first triple-double (11 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists) by an American player in the history of the Olympics against Australia in the quarterfinals– Bryant proudly look on as James finally reached his global apex. King James squarely put to rest any talk about his inability to come up with clutch plays down the stretch.
Leaving the bench with four fouls, and Spain narrowing the deficit to six, it was LeBron’s five points at waning minutes of the fourth that helped to put the U.S. up by nine to seal the game. The first two, came on a lapse in the Spanish defensive set, as James drove the lane for a monster single-handed slam. Following the emphatic dunk, LeBron isolated at the top of the key, had the helpless Marc Gasol all the way out from the paint defending and delivered the 3-point dagger over the 7-footer. James’ heroics had pushed the U.S. out of harm’s way and his 19 points, seven rebounds and team-high four assists, capped one of the most impressive individual years in basketball history.
In winning a NBA championship, and now a second gold medal, James joined Michael Jordan (1992) as the only players to win an NBA title, NBA MVP award and a gold-medal in the same year. His masterful performance in London, not only set himself apart from the rest of pack, but also has enabled him to turn the tide of public opinion that was once stacked against him.
“He’s matured incredibly as a person, a player and a leader,” stated Jerry Colangelo, chairman of USA Basketball. “Winning his first NBA championship was big, but he knew this was big for him and his legacy.”
LeBron will be only 31 when it’s time for the 2016 Games in Brazil. Kobe will be 37 having played 20 NBA seasons with his aging body. Four years from now, James would just have wrapped his 13th season and could look to lead the U.S. to a three-peat, with hopes of passing the baton to KD, who will be only 27. But it’s too far into the future to predict, whether James will carry Team USA to glory, one last time. For now, “It’s all about the three letters on the chest,” James said before the gold-medal ceremony, savoring the moment. Before long, it will be all about the four letters on his chest in his first NBA title defense, as Kobe goes for six.
Image: Sports World Report