WHEN THE medal was draped around LeBron James's neck, he lifted it up and gave it a bite, to make sure it was all for real. While the national anthem was played, Carmelo Anthony stood lost in his thoughts and memories. The two NBA stars took the blame eight years ago in Athens when American basketball bottomed out with three losses and a bronze medal. On Sunday they were celebrating their second successive Olympic gold medals with the satisfaction of knowing that the U.S is once again the unquestioned king of the court.
James, Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul had combined to win their third straight international title—the 2010 World Championship sandwiched between the two golds—for a run of titles matched only twice before (both times by the U.S.). Mike Krzyzewski retired from international coaching with a record of 53--1 over the last six years, thanks to the flexibility of his perimeter stars in overcoming the size advantage of Spain's seven-foot Gasol brothers, Pau and Marc, who combined for 41 points while forcing 16 lead changes in a memorable rematch of the 2008 gold medal game. The U.S. lead was a scant 97--91 in the final three minutes when James exploded for a dunk and a three-pointer on the way to a 107--100 win. "I hate that in a couple months these guys will be my enemies," said Paul, whose last-minute drive sealed the win. "This is the funnest time of my life."
Now that it looks as if David Stern's plan to make the Olympics an under-23 tournament has been backburnered, the question becomes whether Bryant, James, Anthony, Paul and Deron Williams will return for a gold medal threepeat. Bryant, who will be 37 for the 2016 Games in Rio, won't. And James was too tired and caught up in the celebration to predict—less than two months ago he was putting the finishing touches on his NBA championship with the Heat—but he was happy to put the latest accomplishment in perspective. "It's probably one of the best teams, if not the best team, ever assembled," said James. For one day, at least, no one felt like arguing.