The U.S. men's basketball team took it a step farther on Tuesday. After turning a close game into a predictable 47-point thrashing, Kobe Bryant and company kicked butt and signed their names.
Team USA signing autographs for opponents at international competitions is not a new sight. The original "Dream Team" left their John Hancocks on just about everything in Barcelona, with Michael Jordan occasionally even lowering himself to sign non-Nike materials. The practice was amusing in 1992, when the entire concept of professional basketball players cleaning up in the Olympics was new. The experience was as cool for the Dream Team's opponents — also known as "victims" — as it was for fans.
Things are different in 2012. The U.S. faces a realistic chance of losing in the medal round, although one can safely bet the mortgage on nothing less than silver. If Spain, which sandbagged through an exhibition loss to LeBron James and the gang, tightens up its substitution patterns and actually uses all the parts at its disposal (read: Marc Gasol), the U.S. could face a stiff test for gold.
As a result, it has become less common to see a scene like Tuesday's, where the postgame handshake looks a lot like those autograph sessions designed to draw customers to the new sports card store at that crappy neighborhood mall nobody goes to anymore. When a team actually believes it can win, or at least thinks it can make the game interesting, a double-digit beatdown is no longer enjoyable.
But Tunisia had no shot, and everyone knew it. The Tunisians received deserved praise for keeping the game as close as they did for as long as they did. This was a 46-33 game at halftime and there was never any real danger of the U.S. covering the 55-point spread. A loss is a loss, except when a loss is a moral victory.
The postgame autograph session could have generated either amusement or disgust for observers. On one hand, a jingoist might find it cute that those hopeless Tunisians just want a souvenir from that time they got whooped by the awesome Americans. On the other hand, a competitive purist might consider it a mockery of the game to collect a remembrance of that time they got schooled.
Yet as every Olympic athlete who does not win a medal loves to remind us, the spirit of the Games lies in the honor of representing one's country. For the Tunisian men's basketball team, the only squad in the tournament without a current or former NBA player on its roster, that mission was accomplished. Right below "represent my country" on the to-do list of any Tunisian basketball player should have been, "watch greatness up close and enjoy the heck out of it."
The "Dream Team" idea might be old to a lot of us who remember the previous iterations. NBA commissioner David Stern, who owes a lot to the 1992 team in building the international interest in the game that exists today, apparently is bored of it himself. For many of the players participating in this year's games, though, the notion is as fresh as it was when Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Clyde Drexler took the floor together in 1992. Youssef Gaddour, the youngest member of the Tunisian roster, was two years old then. Telling him this year's U.S. team is no big deal because the 1992 team was better is like telling me that Cal Ripken Jr. becoming baseball's new iron man was no big deal because Lou Gehrig played his consecutive games streak while compiling an average of 379 total bases per season. Maybe the one I witnessed was not as great as the first one, but it was still pretty cool.
If Gaddour wants Bryant's autograph, I say, "Ask away, Youssef." Not everybody gets the chance to get his clock cleaned by a bunch of all-time greats.
Photo via Twitter/@KixandtheCity