- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008

BEIJING | In one heartpounding minute in the first half, LeBron James dunked off a nifty underhanded feed from Dwyane Wade. Then Kobe Bryant flew in and jammed. Then it was Chris Bosh’s turn.

As the backboard swayed, some might have recalled the fabled Dream Team. The final score - United States 101, China 70 - also might draw comparisons.

Who’s worried about the 7-for-29 shooting from beyond the arc? Just toss it up and throw it down.

This was the biggest basketball game in China’s history and perhaps the most-watched basketball game ever - and the United States wanted to turn in a performance to match the moment as it took its first step toward Olympic hoops redemption.

“I’ve never felt an environment quite like this,” said Bryant, a veteran of five NBA Finals. “I’ve played in many big games, but the energy tonight was different.

“I think they knew that history was being made tonight. Obviously, it was a proud moment for their country as it is for ours. You could feel the electricity.”

Two nights after China put on a spectacular opening ceremony, it shared the spotlight with the nation that invented basketball.

The sparkling Wukesong Indoor Stadium began to buzz an hour before tipoff. But it didn’t feel like much of a homecourt for the Chinese. Team USA took the floor to a roar that was every bit as loud as the cheer when China came out of the locker room. Bryant received as much applause as Chinese icon Yao Ming during pregame introductions.

“The excitement of it, the anxiousness of it, the anticipation was just crazy,” said Wade, who led the United States with 19 points off the bench. “I’m kind of glad it’s out of the way now. This game was just over the top.”

With President Bush and his father watching alongside Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi, this was as much a spectacle as a basketball game. The president visited with the U.S. players in the locker room before the game.

“He basically came up to us and said, ‘I’m here to support you, our country supports you and so go out there and kick some butt,’” Bryant said.

They did eventually. But for one half the game met and perhaps even exceeded the expectations of the hosts.

China tied the game 29-29 on a 3-pointer by Sun Yue with six minutes left in the first half.

Then Team USA responded with a 16-3 run capped by a trio of thundering dunks - by James, Bryant and Bosh - on its way to a 49-37 halftime lead.

The United States had beaten China in each of their first nine meetings by a combined 363 points. In their last meeting, the Americans blasted China 121-90 in the world championships two years ago in Sapporo, Japan, harrying the Chinese into 25 turnovers.

Although the United States won by 31 points, the Chinese hoped to send a message. They’re relative newcomers on the international hoops stage, but they aren’t going away.

Yao, who led China with 13 points, seemed to make that point as he came off for the last time with 4:43 left and China trailing 87-54.

Yao raised his right fist to the crowd, sparking a long, loud ovation.

China had lost. But basketball won.

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