Team USA is the Olympic Games basketball champion for the fourth time in a row after Kevin Durant and co. outplayed France in the Final to bring home the gold. The happy ending in Tokyo completed a summer saga that had began a bit ominously for the USA squad.
Since the loss to Nigeria in the first preparation game ahead of the Olympics there were plenty of skeptics who questioned USA’s capabilities and whether the team will confirm its status as a favorite in Tokyo and go all the way to winning the gold medal. It was just a friendly game but criticism went probably beyond any logic or sense since the result was called “embarrassing,” shameful”, “disgraceful” – take your pick from any word of similar meaning.
On the other hand, Gregg Popovich declared that he was “kind of glad it happened.” But what does he know, right?
The defeat to Australia that followed didn’t make things any better: Two losses in two straight exhibition matches. The doubters that became silent for a bit after the prep wins over Argentina and Spain, went loud again when France beat USA in the Olympics opener. It was the first game and far from the end of the world but the defeat was enough to set the alarm off among USA players.
“We lost some games. Never lost with Team USA before, so taking a loss was tough,” Kevin Durant said after the win of USA in the Final against France. He erupted for 29 points and drained a pair of free throws that secured the victory for his team while being named tournament MVP. “I remember we had a team meeting after the first game against France. Pop [Gregg Popovich] wasn’t there, but we had a team meeting on our own. You know when you have a team meeting, you are kind at the bottom, you know. So, we just worked our way up from there. Everybody just committed to doing what’s best for the group, no matter what.”
While he was walking to the press conference area, Durant went live on Instagram since he wanted to “talk my sh–t real quick.” And by that, he meant blasting back at critics and those who he thought they were disrespecting Team USA and even throwing shades at Popovich.
“They were talking sh–it about Pop. ‘He couldn’t get us to lock in,” Durant said sarcastically. “Stop playing man!” . His former Warriors teammate Draymond Green went more specific: “Kendrick Perkins, you talk a lot of sh–t A lot of sh–t,” Green said. “Act like you’re American.”
“A lot of people back home doubted us,” Durant later mentioned in the post-game presser. “A lot of people said it was going to be tough for us to win. And to be honest, they really don’t matter, but you hear the noise so much. And we came together and finished it off, which is the perfect ending for us. So, we are looking forward to bringing this back home.”
“We went through a lot, a lot of adversity, and we came together pretty fast,” Durant added. “We built a bond with each other, that going to last lifetime, in my opinion. This group was special, and grateful to be a part of it, grateful that we could bring the gold back home.
Popovich sang praises for Durant’s work ethic and particularly lauded the way he influenced and inspired his teammates, on and off the floor.
“K.D. is not special because he’s so talented,” Popovich said. “The way he works on his game is more impressive. The relationships he builds with teammates, the respect. he garners, the joy he has in playing – it’s like osmosis, it goes into all the other players and allows you to develop a camaraderie and an enjoyment to be together and to do that. And that sort of love of the game and love of people is what makes him more special than as a player.”
USA always has to bear that “gold or bust” burden in every single competition they participate in. They have the best players in the world, everyone waits for them at the corner to fail and they just have to deliver.
This pressure weighed even heavier now since USA was coming from a seventh-place finish in the 2019 World Cup. Popovich, who made his head coach debut with USA in that tournament, admitted that he’s been carrying an unprecedented amount of responsibility.
“Every championship is special and the group, you’re with a special, but I can be honest and say this is the most responsibility I’ve ever felt,” Pop said. “Because you’re playing for so many people that are watching for a country and other countries involved. The responsibility was awesome. And I felt that every day for several years now.”
For the team’s longtime managing director Jerry Colangelo, this gold medal exorcized a “Made in Japan” kind of ghost that he confessed it was still haunting him after 15 years: The defeat to Greece in the 2006 World Cup semifinal.
It was the final straw in a series of unsuccessful tournaments that ultimately led to the renaissance of USA basketball with the creation of the “Redeem Team”
“In fact, the first time I came in here a week ago, or whenever it was, it brought back all those memories of what happened in ’06 So, I got that monkey off my back, too,” Colangelo said per USA Basketball.
There’s now shadow of past failures lingering around now and nothing to redeem. No stress to unload and just plenty to celebrate. “I’m feeling pretty light now. And looking forward to getting back to the hotel and having something,” Popovich said.
Probably the finest vintage red the hotel has to offer.