James Lawton: Star of LeBron burns brightest to dazzle Chinese pretenders
America's heavyweights eclipsed the hosts here in the first round of what promises to be an epic battle for Olympic supremacy
Monday 11 August 2008
It was supposed to be the keynote launch of the great battle for Olympic supremacy between China and the old masters America, a kind of intergalactic collision squeezed on to a basketball court. In a way, and much to the delight of the American President, George W Bush, who showed up in a open-necked shirt and lacked only a bag of popcorn and a cold beer to go with his blue collar, it was.
The stars of one planet quite simply sought out those of another and, after some brief, twinkling parity, burnt them into oblivion.
The United States, a somewhat dubious Dream Team after sliding off the gold standard in Athens four years ago when they fell into a panic against Greece, in their new form and personnel won 101-70 but it scarcely defined the vast tracts of space separating them from the always brave, and in the early going, excitingly inventive Chinese.
As the hosts reminded us in their sensational opening ceremony, they were the first to make fireworks. Last night it was the turn of the Americans, led by the often sublime LeBron James, to underline their own contribution to the invention business. America created basketball and here they were utterly committed to making the point that they still owned the copyright.
Michael Jordan leapt into the consciousness of the sports world in the Los Angles Olympics of 1984 with a series of breathtaking examples of both extreme athleticism and a subtle sense of space. Here yesterday, James at times made a similar impact – even though his haul of 18 points left him one behind his team-mate Dwayne Wade of Miami Heat. Wade is also known as Flash. He produced plenty of evidence to suggest why this was so but in the matter of artistry, of moving on to another level of creativity and execution, he was operating on a fine but relatively limited level. James scored a couple of three-pointers which stunned the 18,000 crowd, had President Bush almost out of his seat and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, deciding that if the nation was indeed on the point of a genuine Great Leap Forward it wasn't going to be while playing hoops.
Still, according to the great sports hero of China, the 7ft 6in Yao Ming, what happened even in defeat was something that was always going to be a "treasured memory. We did our best against the greatest players in the world and I think it is a great step forward for the game in our country. Every young Chinese person now knows how the game is played at its best."
That was the sweetest music in the ears of the 23-year-old James, who was the most sought-after young athlete in the history of American professional sports when he was a high school student in Ohio. Even then he wanted more than a mere rich living from the basketball court or the baseball diamond – it was hard to know at which game he most excelled – and he was reported telling his mother: "Mom, I just want to be some kind of star in this world."
The likelihood of a rich living was settled soon enough. Now he is in the second year of a $60m (£30m) contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers, which makes him a free agent in two years' time. But according to LeBron, there is so much more out there than vast financial reward. Before last night's game he declared: "I expect to be electrified. It's probably going to be the most watched [basketball] game in the history of the world. It's going to send a lot of chills through my body just being out there."
James distributed his own cold shafts to Chinese hearts with some of his more sumptuous moves and confirmed the impression of many of his admirers that he is a young god of the basketball who isn't likely to turn bad in his riches or any attacks of narcissism.
Says the American coach Mike Krzyzewski: "I'm proud of this young team – they have come to represent their country with pride – and they showed respect to the Chinese players tonight. It was recognised that our opponents have made great strides and in a man like Yao Ming they have somebody to inspire a whole generation."
The big man from Shanghai had some brilliant moments in the first quarter, at the end of which his team trailed by a mere four points. He tends to move in the fashion of an old world heavyweight champion, another giant, Primo Carnera, who was christened the Ambling Alp. But then Yao did show some subtle touches as he laid on three-point opportunities and provoked huge passion in the stadium. There was also some thrilling play-making by the guards Sun Yue and captain Liu Wei before the sheer weight and skill of the American game became irresistible.
Some of this came from Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers – the one rival to James in the range and quality of his skill. But for some of his Chinese fans, Bryant was not quite as luminous as they hoped when mobbing him in the streets of Beijing this week. Krzyzewski said: "It's amazing being here with Kobe. He gives me an idea of what it must have been like travelling with the Beatles. He's been mobbed wherever we've gone." Maybe such expectations weighed a little on the superstar by the time the presidents of America and China had taken their seats.
There was no question of this with James. He blossomed a little more with every fresh example of his fine and intricate skill. Afterwards he declared: "I knew I was going to enjoy this game – but I didn't know how much."
Beijing certainly enjoyed the boy from Ohio who always wanted to charm the world. One relieved compatriot said: "When our basketball players come to the Olympics everyone is eager to identify them as the richest and the ugliest Americans, but there was no way that they would get the gold medal for that here after our cyclists wore their black masks." Still less, after the richest men in sport gave a classic lesson in the game they gave at least some of the world.
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