LONDON – They collected their rewards half a world away, in front of a crowd packed with enough big shots to rival the shine of the gold hanging from their necks.
But the road that ended on the top step of a medal platform Sunday afternoon at the London Olympics began in far less glittering locales: a pizza parlor in Chicago, where Mike Krzyzewski first made his commitment to USA Basketball chief Jerry Colangelo, and the loading dock of a stadium in Phoenix, where not too long after Kobe Bryant did the same.
The “K Boys” came in as the pillars of a rebuilding effort following a disastrous performance at the 2004 Olympics. So there was something fitting about the fact that they left on the same afternoon as back-to-back Olympic champions after Team USA defeated Spain 107-100 for the gold medal. It was a final scene that notables ranging from NBA commissioner David Stern and IOC boss Jacques Rogge to David Beckham and Arnold Schwarzengger wanted to be on hand to witness for themselves. Yet by the end, there was little doubt who the biggest stars were.
“It’s very emotional. Very emotional,” Bryant said, searching for the words. “You just kind of think back on the journey, so to speak. Being here for your last go-around, wearing USA on your chest, it’s very emotional.
“You understand how fleeting time is,” he added, “and you enjoy every single moment of it.”
Krzyzewski suggested trying to choose the best moment in that run would be like choosing between his three daughters.
“As a matter of fact, each team that we’ve had, the ’08 (Beijing Olympics), ’10 (world championship) and ’12 are different,” he began. “A shared experience and a championship moment – those are the best that a coach or a player could ever have.
“They are the ultimate,” Krzyzewski added, “so it’s tough to differentiate among them.”
In the bowels of the North Greenwich Arena, Colangelo wasn’t about to try. Instead, he recalled how he recruited both men, how he insisted on seeing for himself whether each was prepared for the work necessary to return a proud program back to the top. Both already had full-time commitments, Krzyzewski to Duke University and Bryant to the Lakers. So Colangelo didn’t call their agents or schedule a meeting, he just waited until an opening turned up and then pounced.
First, he grabbed Krzyzewski over a deep dish pie and a few glasses of wine when both Chicago natives were back home to see family in 2005; next, he sidled up to Bryant in early 2006 as he stepped off the Lakers’ bus before a game against the Suns.
“It was a couple days after he’d scored 81 (points in a game) and I was just pulling his chain a little bit,” Colangelo recalled. “ So I said, ‘I may ask you to distribute rather than shoot.’ And he said, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes.’ ”
Colangelo insisted Krzyzewski, 65, would be back at his side, in some capacity, but not as the coach.
Colangelo knew he wasn’t likely to talk Bryant into coming back. Just getting him here healthy was tough enough. Bryant turns 34 this month, but he’s already played in the NBA for half his life, going straight from high school to the pros.
“Kobe was not at the top of his game when we started this competition. I think the plan was he was playing himself into shape,” Colangelo said.
“But we all felt when the time came, he would deliver, and that’s exactly what he’s done.”
Colangelo didn’t read off Bryant’s line for the last three games because he didn’t need to; suffice it to say Bryant submarined Australia in the quarterfinals with four 3-point baskets in a 66-second span, then scored 11 in the first quarter to set the tone against Argentina and finally, 17 against Spain.
“Kobe,” Colangelo said, “was Kobe when he needed to be.”
He had help. LeBron James capped one of basketball’s most brilliant individual years with a monster dunk and a huge 3-pointer in the final 2:50 against Spain that finally wrapped up a close, back-and-forth game that few would have seen coming after the Americans had been so dominant for so long in London.
Kevin Durant scored 30 points and James had 19 on a day he joined Michael Jordan as the only players to win the NBA title, regular-season MVP, NBA Finals MVP and Olympic gold in the same year.
Pau Gasol scored 24 points and Juan Carlos Navarro had 21 for Spain, which trailed by only a point heading into the fourth quarter.
But in the clutch, the Spanish somehow lost sight of James, and the game’s best player drove uncontested and threw it down for a 99-91 lead with 2:48 left. After Marc Gasol dunked, James dribbled outside the circle with Marc Gasol giving him just a bit too much room, and James pulled up for the 3 that made it 102-93 with 1:59 to play.