U.S. basketball tries to keep up Olympic brand as Spain mourns end of an era

U.S. basketball player Devin Booker leaps in front of Spain's Rudy Fernandez at the Tokyo Olympics.
U.S. guard Devin Booker drives to the basket in front of Spain’s Rudy Fernandez during a 95-81 win in the quarterfinals Tuesday.
(Charlie Niebergall / Associated Press)

Marc Gasol stepped back to reflect. Pau Gasol’s voice cracked in two different languages. Rudy Fernandez stared at the floor and Spain coach Sergio Sarcolo reflected on the legends built by a generation of Spanish basketball stars.

Minutes later Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum sat down on stage behind a table and a microphone and celebrated the U.S.’ 95-81 victory by swapping out the promotionally placed Powerade for a label-less Gatorade, the company he endorses.

It was another reminder of the challenges American basketball faces when competing on the international stage, players who are brands themselves attempting to come together while they try to defeat teams like Spain, who mourned the end of a basketball era that’s stretched across three decades.

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Tatum’s not the first American basketball player to balk at the Olympics’ promotional arms. Michael Jordan (who runs the sneaker brand that sponsors Tatum) famously draped the American flag over his shoulder during the podium ceremony in 1992, covering the Reebok logo on his USA-issued jacket.

And this shouldn’t imply that the U.S. men’s basketball team is an underdog by any stretch. Sarcolo said the Americans have “10 times the talent of everyone else.” It’s about combining all that greatness onto one roster and then keeping it from being messy.

Thankfully for the Americans, they have Kevin Durant to clean things up, asserting himself as they advanced to the semifinals. In Olympic competitions the U.S. men’s basketball team has participated in, they’ve never failed to at least get this far.

Basketball players Kevin Durant and Jayson Tatum exchange a high-five at the Tokyo Olympics.
Kevin Durant, left, and Jayson Tatum celebrate their win over Spain.
(Eric Gay / Associated Press)

“We’re supposed to be here,” Durant said.

Spain’s been a hurdle in the past, and while they’re now older and slower, they weren’t easy to get past. The U.S. quickly trailed by 10 and nearly blew a double-digit lead in the second half. Ricky Rubio scored 38 points, almost pulling off the upset alone.

After the game, though, both Gasols retired from international competition. Marc Gasol said the plan is to be with the Lakers this upcoming season (he’s got one year left on his contract). Pau said he’d consider all his options, including retirement.

“Now, this was my last game with the national team,” Pau Gasol said. “Now I have to digest, talk to my family and think about whether it is worth it for me to play or should I move on.”

Spain's Pau Gasol, left, and Jrue Holiday of the U.S. fight for a rebound during Tuesday's game.
(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

After the loss, Marc Gasol reflected on the run the two brothers had — a stretch of 20 years with at least one of them playing with Spain winning two world championships, three European titles and three Olympic medals.

“It’s hitting me now. And yeah, it’s life. It’s destined to change,” Marc Gasol said. “We had so many great moments and have done it always at the highest level with so much pride. We’ve been able to enjoy [it]. We’ve had way too many medals. When we started, you’re not supposed to win that many medals. ...

“It’s been a hell of a ride.”

The Americans’ journey continues. They’ll play Australia in the semifinals, their confidence growing after a strong response to Spain’s hot start.

“We picked up our defense, offense got going, and Kevin Durant was great,” Draymond Green said. “He was who we need him to be. He showed why he’s arguably the greatest player in the world.”

Durant scored 29, carving up the Spanish defense off the dribble before beating them from the outside late.

He knows the Americans can’t compete with the continuity that their opposition has, groups that have been together, that have thrived together and, in defeat, who mourn together. Instead, the U.S. team has to figure it out, a group of individual stars with sneaker deals and sports drink partners that have to unite in a short period of time.

“We’re in a good spot right now. Guys are starting to understand their roles, just get more comfortable within a team,” Durant said. “And this setting, it’s always hard to get your footing as an individual player. You don’t want to step on any toes, you’re coming in and out of the game, not playing as many minutes, not getting as many shots. I love how we stuck with it throughout this whole period of time.

“And guys have started to figure out what we need to do.”