BEIJING — I’ve attended hundreds of basketball games at the high school, college, and professional level in the United States, as well as the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan and a few dozen bj-league games over the past two seasons.
Yet it’s safe to say that I’ve probably never seen a player enjoy himself more on the court than NBA All-Star guard Dwyane Wade did while playing for Team USA in Sunday’s game against China at Olympic Basketball Gymnasium in Beijing. The one player who exhibited the same joie de vivre was Magic Johnson.
It was Wade’s first significant game this summer. He missed the final 21 games of the Miami Heat’s disastrous season due to a knee injury. He underwent shock-wave treatment and then began the grueling process of getting back into basketball shape.
Before the two-week Olympic tournament began, U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters that Wade’s playing condition was as good as it was when he sparked the Heat to an NBA title two summers ago.
Coach K certainly made a valid point.
Wade came off the bench and played a near perfect 20 minutes. He scored a game-high 19 points. He made all 7 shots from the field, including spectacular dunks and highlight reel layups, and was 5-for-5 from the charity stripe (the place the New York Post’s Peter Vecsey affectionately calls the “welfare line”). He added two assists and two steals. Oh yeah, he did commit a turnover. China’s overall defense was less than brilliant, but Wade played an exceptional game. He deserves credit for that.
OK, so we know that Wade had plenty of reasons to smile after Team USA’s 101-70 victory over China in what was instantly billed the most-watched game in basketball history. But what was his mind-set before the game?
“I haven’t been this anxious to play a basketball game since I was like a kid,” Wade said.
Could you blame him? The fact that more than 1 billion people in China alone knew Yao Ming would be playing a basketball game late Sunday night provided a Mt. Everest-esque level of motivation for Wade and his 11 teammates.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Wade admitted. “I was up the whole day just thinking about the game. It takes you to walk out on the court to feel it. . . . It couldn’t get no bigger than this.”
Since his rise to stardom at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wade has become the quintessential stay-cool-under-pressure performer.
In this tournament, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are the overwhelming choices as the favorite players who aren’t named Yao Ming. Spain’s Pau Gasol and Argentina’s Manu Ginobili round out this scribe’s top five in terms of mass appeal.
Watch Wade closely and you’ll see a player who has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He is quick, explosive off the dribble and blessed with a smooth shooting touch and impressive jumping ability.
Whenever LeBron James steps onto the court, he is 30 minutes away from a potential triple-double, and we already understand that Kobe Bryant can score 50 points more frequently than many politicians are contemplating what their next lie will be.
But on this national team, the one guided by Coach K, those are not goals. Team-oriented basketball is the mission and a return to the top of basketball’s pecking order.
“Our guys are playing for the name on the front of the jersey,” Krzyzewski reminded hundreds of reporters.
That style of play is, and has always been, Wade’s trademark. Take a look at his career averages in the NBA — 23.9 points, 6.5 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game — and you’ll begin to understand just how valuable he has been to the Heat. Yes, Shaquille O’Neal gave Miami instant credibility when he joined the franchise after his departure from the Los Angeles Lakers, but without a guard of Wade’s caliber, the Heat would never have won the championship.
The Heat’s success will depend a lot on Wade’s ability to avoid injuries and the number of game-changing plays he can make. He remains, above all, one of the top catalysts in all of sports. You can also add this title to his collection of attributes: The Stabilizer.
Wade, 26, never appears to panic on the court. He is equally eloquent when it comes to breaking down the thought process of what it takes to excel in sports.
“Of course there’s pressure,” he said, specifically referring to Team USA’s quest to recapture the Olympic gold after an eight-year hiatus. “Everybody is looking at us. There’s nothing you can do about that. If we don’t win, there’s going to be a lot to be said about it, but we want that pressure. You don’t become a professional athlete, a competitor, if you don’t like pressure.
“That’s pressure that we all signed up for. We have seven more games and we have to take it one game at a time. Our next important game is Angola on Tuesday night.”
Veteran point guard Jason Kidd, making his 50th appearance in a U.S. uniform (the basketball equivalent of an impressive numbers of caps) pointed out that China had everything going in its favor at the start of Sunday’s game.
“For China, you couldn’t script it any better with Yao hitting a 3-pointer to start the game off,” said Kidd, the team’s elder statesman and captain. “In that first half, we were a little excited, and we just needed to settle down. Once we came out after halftime, we started playing better. That second quarter, actually, we started playing defense.”
Kidd didn’t highlight Wade’s contributions in his brief postgame interview. He didn’t need to. Wade made a big statement, and when it was over, the consensus was this: Wade remains one of the planet’s most gifted players.
Again: Everyone expects King James and Kobe to make a large number of impressive plays during this Olympic tournament. It helps to remember, though, that Wade is the third member of Team USA’s “Big 3.”