BEIJING As members of the United States men's basketball team bounced as giddily as schoolgirls in a half-court celebration of their 118-107 gold-medal victory Sunday over Spain, the Olympic Basketball Gymnasium loud speakers blared the Bruce Springsteen hit "Born in the U.S.A."
Too bad The Boss never recorded "Born in '04 Athens."
That summarizes the "Bronze Age" of USA Basketball, a lowly third-place finish four years ago that spawned the current generation of committed NBA-superstars-turned-Olympians who now have returned U.S. hoops back to its gold standard.
"It's a great feeling to be champions of the world, and that's what we are Olympic champions," said Deron Williams, the Utah Jazz guard making his Games debut. "It was something we worked hard for, sacrificed a lot for, spent a month away from our families and our kids it's special."
But the golden victory didn't come as easily as expected, especially after the United States had walloped Spain by a 37-point margin eight days earlier in pool play.
In fact, the buzz from other sides and veteran basketball fans called the game the best ever in the Olympics, which U.S. head coach Mike Krzyzewski backed up.
"It was one of the great games in international basketball history," he said. "To win a game like that is the best."
The back-and-forth battle mirrored a heavyweight fight one team landing a blow and the other answering, and doing it effectively on offense. The U.S. shot 60 percent for the game and 46 percent on 3-pointers, Spain countered with 51 and 47. The Spaniards played close throughout, down by just two points with about eight minutes to play and within four with 2:30 remaining. And all this without starting guard Jose Calderon, a rising NBA star.
"You've got to tip your hat to Spain they played great," Williams said. "They came out and played their hearts out, and fought and scrapped without Calderon and gave us our first test."
Added U.S./Jazz teammate Carlos Boozer: "We got them when we had to get them, and we won the gold medal. If we didn't get stops, we wouldn't have won it."
Dwyane Wade scored a game-high 27 points on 9-of-12 shooting, including 4-of-7 behind the arc, to lead the United States. Kobe Bryant scored 11 of his 20 points in the final eight-plus minutes, while LeBron James added 14.
Williams finished with seven points, a rebound, and assist and a steal, while Boozer only saw court time in the closing minute.
Spain's team-high 22 from Rudy Fernandez included five 3-pointers, while center Pau Gasol worked inside to add 21.
Spain ripped off a 9-0 run to start the fourth quarter and pull within two at 91-89, with Bryant sinking a running jumper in the lane and Williams burying a 3 as the Americans set a pattern of withstanding every Spanish threat.
Gasol's basket with three and a half minutes left made it a five-point deficit with 3:30 to play, but Bryant one-upped his Laker teammate with a four-point play, being fouled after hitting a trey.
And when Carlos Jimenez drained a right-side 3, Kobe answered right back with his own 3-pointer to up the advantage back to seven with two minutes to play.
Spain managed only Marc Gasol's field goal the rest of the way and hurt its own cause with two two-shot technical fouls in the final half-minute.
By the end of the day, Boozer, Wade, James and Carmelo Anthony had gone from being bronzed-bummed as members of the '04 U.S. team in Athens to being part of the undefeated '08 team that served as "gold" retrievers.
"Now that I look back on '04, that experience has been a blessing to myself, to LeBron, Dwyane Wade and also Carlos Boozer," said Anthony at the postgame press conference."We were at America's lowest point in '04, and (now) to be sitting here in front of you guys tonight and be on top of the world," he added. "I think we did a helluva job putting American basketball back where it's supposed to be, which is at the top of the world."