BEIJING Through the clenched teeth of permanent grins, Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer and the rest of the United States men's Olympic basketball team tried to respond during individual question-and-answer sessions after Friday morning's introductory press conference at the Main Press Center.
It wasn't because the questions were necessarily funny or because the individual player, coach and official in attendance enjoyed the crush as each was swarmed by throngs of reporters, photographers and video operators.
Many local Chinese and international media were going a step further sticking their faces besides or behind one of the U.S. players so a colleague could snap a photo of them next to their "newest best friend," NBA superstar (fill in the blank here).
With the 12 U.S. players scattered around the auditorium, the photo-seekers played their own version of the basketball game "around the world."
"It's crazy, man, that's all it is just crazy," said Williams, as the Jazz point guard, seated on a chair off to the side of the largest MPC auditorium, tried to answer questions while several reporters rotated to crouch down beside him for a makeshift photo opportunity, cameras constantly flashing.
Just another of the nonstop Kodak moments for Team USA, the most sought-after athletes of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
It's just one example of the mega-rock-star treatment the U.S. men's basketball team has received since arriving in the People's Republic of China, first for a couple of pre-Games exhibitions in Shanghai and now in Beijing for the bona-fide games.
"I think more and more people know me here than they do back home in America," said Williams, glancing over his shoulder to the mob scene at the front of the auditorium. "And if they know me, they definitely know Kobe."
That would be Kobe Bryant, the reigning NBA MVP and Los Angeles Lakers' star, who, along with teammate LeBron James and U.S. head coach Mike Krzyzewski, were the featured trio on stage, drawing wall-to-wall media contingents.
When asked if he envies the attention Bryant has drawn in China, Boozer gave an animated "what-do-you-think" shrug and facial expression from his seat at the back aisle of the auditorium.
The gesture spoke volumes that Kobe's fame and fortune would be to die for, but that dealing with the masses and life under a public microscope might be the death of one, too.
"He's been the face of the league for so long, but I think the torch is being handed to LeBron," said the Jazz power forward and second-time Olympian, who added, "it's an honor, really we didn't expect all this attention."
And it's a good attention, if you can stand it.
"We got no love in Athens," said Boozer of his 2004 Summer Games experience. "We're getting plenty of love here."
Williams said the advantage of being a younger player and less recognizable than the likes of Bryant, James and other uber-superstars "is that I've been able to get out some and escape."
One challenge he's experienced with Chinese media and the Chinese general public is the result of language and cultural barriers when it comes to questions and requests.
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