Monday, August 25, 2008

Kobe’s Clutch Play Clinches Redemption

With 8:13 left in the Gold Medal Game, Rudy Fernandez had just lobbed a perfect alley-oop to Pau Gasol and then hit a 3-pointer to bring Spain within 2 points of the United States. After repeated blowouts, including a 37-point drubbing of this very Spain team, the outcome of the game was uncertain for the first time in this Olympics. How would the U.S. respond? A three-time NBA champion gave an emphatic answer. Like Michael Jordan 24 years ago (coincidentally also against Spain in the 1984 Gold Medal Game), Kobe Bryant stepped up and delivered when it mattered most. For three years, Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski had been preaching the importance of playing as a team. But even the best and most balanced of teams need a leader. With basketball redemption in the balance, the U.S. needed a leader now more than ever.

After a time-out, a careful look at Kobe’s demeanor told you all you needed to know. His eyes glowed with determination and confidence. He licked his lips and smiled with eagerness. Under such pressure, lesser players may wither and choke; clutch performers like Kobe are actually buoyed up. They don’t just believe, they know they are about to lead their team to victory.

After the timeout, Kobe “let Mamba loose” as he was involved in 14 of the next 17 points for team USA. A tough leaning jumper in the lane. A drive and kick-out to Deron Williams for a wide-open three. A hand-off down low to Dwight Howard for a power slam. And after a Lebron James layup, a three-pointer of his own. The U.S. was up 11, but Spain kept fighting back. Fernandez had an impressive dunk on Dwight Howard after Kobe gambled and went for a steal. Then after 2 free-throws and a jumper by Pau Gasol, Spain was back within five. Next time down the court, Kobe is calling for the ball once again. He gets it on the left wing with Fernandez right in his face. He fakes right and then hits a three as Fernandez fouls him, his fifth. As Rudy walked to the bench, Kobe put his finger in front of his lips to let the Spanish fans know they could stop cheering now. Hush. Completing the four-point play gave the U.S. a 9-point lead. Kobe said, “it meant so much; felt so good, felt so good.” Five straight Spain points dropped the U.S. lead back to four. Another NBA champion, Dwyane Wade, answered with another clutch three. Then after a Spain free-throw, Kobe hit a runner in the lane to push the lead back to eight with 1:11 left in the game. The uncertainty had passed as Spain was forced to foul. The U.S. had claimed redemption by winning what coach Krzyzewski called “one of the great games in international basketball history.” And in the climactic fourth-quarter, no player was greater than Kobe Bryant.

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