When Kobe Bryant suggested that his current United States basketball side would beat the original 1992 Dream Team, one of the latter, Charles Barkley “just started laughing”.
He could perhaps have come up with a version of the old Bill Shankly line when some modern upstart was once compared to the great Tom Finney and conceded that it might just be possible, although Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Co are either already in or about to enter their sixth decade.
Barkley, a television pundit these days, would have been entitled to raise an eyebrow at the end of the first quarter this afternoon when the US were being held 22-21 by France in the first defence of their 2008 title. The French, runners-up to Spain in the last EuroBasket, have no shortage of NBA talent themselves, but from that point the Group A match ran away from them and they finished well beaten by 98-71.
The US are favourites for the men’s title that they have won in 13 of the 16 occasions it has been contested. The only exceptions were in 1972 when Russia knocked them out by a single point; in the American boycott of 1980 (related to politics, not the previous defeat); and eight years ago when Argentina sprang a surprise by beating them in the semi-final and went on to the take the gold medal.
This time Spain, who the Americans beat in the Beijing final, and play in Great Britain’s Group B, are again regarded as their strongest rivals, with Argentina and Brazil leading the South American challenge; but the fact that France, also contenders, were beaten so comfortably in the end by a team only occasionally racing through the gears, suggests the mantle of favouritism may not be an undue burden.
The highest scorer with 22 points today was Kevin Durant, scoring champion for the past three seasons in the NBA. Bryant, Lebron James and the 7ft 1in Tyson Chandler also entertained a crowd that was full to 12,000 capacity by the finish and included no less a VIP than Michelle Obama. As seems par for most events at the Games, they also had to put up with a manic master of ceremonies, whose favourite game was to pick out a couple on the big screen and demand that they indulge in a quick snog. What the crowd were not allowed to see on the screen was any of the instant replays available to a television audience; understandable, arguably, in the case of the many fouls that litter a match but disappointing when it comes to baskets, spectacular or more mundane.
France appeared over-reliant on their star man (and shortest at a mere 6ft 1), who bears the unlikely Francophone name of Tony Parker. Born in Belgium to an American father who played professionally and a Dutch mother, he kept his team in the match early on but admits that he is not fully fit since suffering an eye injury in an NBA game that forces him to wear goggles during matches.
It was the countries’ first meeting since the 2000 Olympic final, which the US won 85-75; they should be more straightforward winners in their next matches, against Tunisia on Tuesday and Nigeria on Thursday before taking on the stronger Lithuania and Argentina. One of the delights of the Olympics to discover countries who are unexpectedly successful at a particular sport; Lithuania turn out to have been semi-finalists in each of the past five tournaments, winning the bronze medal three times. As the top four from each group of six qualify for the quarter-finals, they will expect to progress to the quarter-finals again at least, probably with the Americans, France and Argentina from Group A. That would eliminate Nigeria and Tunisia, who met in the opening match yesterday, the former edging it 60-56.
Durant said later: “We just played with attitude, fighting for each ball, defending hard and getting every rebound. That’s how we beat teams that are hard to beat. If [opponents] made it to the Olympics, it’s because they are good. We just have to play hard and we’ll be fine.”
The American coach Mike Krzyzewski denied that nerves were responsible for his team’s slow start. “These guys don’t have jitters,” he said. “There was an adjustment to a new venue and the way the game was administered but this was a really good day for us. A good first step in beating an outstanding side.”
The 65-year-old provides a link to the 1992 team in that he was an assistant coach then, although he assuredly does not find such comparisons from the likes of Bryant helpful. “They were at the end of their careers [whereas] we have a bunch of racehorses,” Bryant had said. Barkley settled for a horse-laugh in response.