|On Day No. 7 of our Olympic journey, the jingoistic gene in me kicked in – big time. No more flying under the radar in plain dress as we travel the breadth of Beijing. Wednesday it was all about the red, white and blue and the pursuit of the supreme Olympic color – gold. I broke out my U.S.A. T-shirt and wore it proudly during the morning rush hour on the city’s remarkably efficient subway system. Logan, my 17-year-old son, went one better in his blazing red U.S. men’s basketball shirt. He even draped the American flag over his shoulders and the two of us were clearly magnets for scores of curious Chinese commuters on another gray, steamy morning in the capital.
With my wife and two daughters, we rode the Beijing metro for nearly 50 minutes (four transfers and two security checks) for 2 yuan, each or about 28 cents per ticket. But the stir we created isn’t in the same universe as one triggered by Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and the rest of the NBA stars who make up the U.S. men’s basketball team. Except for American swimming freak Michael Phelps (5 gold medals in his gym bag and a legitimate chance at a record 8 before The Games end), Bryant and Co. are the ultimate rock stars of this Summer Olympics.
The U.S. players are the Greek Gods of basketball in the states and abroad and their box office appeal is on full display in this hoop-crazed city of 17 million. In fact, thanks to smart marketing by NBA Commissioner David Stern and the emergence of Chinese star player Yao Ming (China’s flag bearer in the Opening Ceremonies and the tallest athlete in The Games), basketball is the fastest-growing sport among the nation’s 1.3 billion people. Nearly every elementary and secondary school in China, even in the country, offers basketball. Walking in Beijing, little boys in Houston Rocket jerseys (Yao Ming’s NBA team) are a common sight. Near the Forbidden City one afternoon, I watched two boys dribbling basketball balls down a narrow cobblestone street – a striking contrast of new and old in a culture that spans nearly 5,000 years. The new Beijing National Arena is a state-of-the-art basketball palace complete with luxury boxes and high-definition video screens. The Chinese even have their version of the Los Angeles “Laker Girl” dancers who would have most assuredly caused Chairman Mao to blush with their belly exposed attire and hip-thrusting moves. Close your eyes and you think you’re at Staples Center in L.A.
For a week now, I have seen, up close, the stars that are driving this international basketball frenzy. The U.S. men’s and women’s teams, their families and handlers are staying in our hotel on the upper three floors. The hotel, located in Beijing’s financial district, has been sealed off with temporary fencing for The Games. Getting in and out requires a body check and all bags and backpacks are X-rayed by military police in the driveway.
Inside the hotel, the players – among others, Jason Kidd, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul on the men’s side, and Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker on the women’s – move freely from the fitness center to a special banquet facility set up for the teams. We’ve had a half-dozen encounters with players from both teams in the elevators and hotel lobby and they seem genuinely excited about being medal favorites. But on the street it’s a different story. Police tape holds back fans, including one Chinese teen-age girl who has stood watch in her purple and gold Kobe Bryant jersey since we arrived on Aug. 7. Even a torrential downpour didn’t drive her from her vigil to spot Kobe. The day after the father of a former U.S. women’s volleyball player was stabbed to death about 6 kilometers from our hotel, security was ratcheted up several more notches, all in the name of celebrity.
On Wednesday a handful of players from the men’s team ventured out to the Olympic Aquatics Center. Sitting poolside in the athlete’s bleachers, Kobe, LeBron, Kidd and other “ballers,” as the kids call them, signed autographs and posed for pictures, this time with other Olympians. They had come to pay respects to another superstar with the last name of Phelps. Waving flags and chanting “U.S.A. U.S.A” along with thousands of others, the basketball boys who want to make history themselves by winning back the gold medal had come to witness some. Phelps didn’t disappoint as he picked up two more gold to run his Beijing total to five and send the Americans in the crowd into delirium. As my son and younger daughter danced and waved Old Glory high up in the stands, a group of international basketball icons showed they’re human as they high-fived each other just like the rest of us proud Yankee homers. Go U.S.A.!
(Above) It's all about the red, white and blue at the Beijing National Aquatic Center as U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps wins his 4th gold medal.
(Below) A pair of Australian swimming fans who spent the entire session chanting, "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie." "Hello Mate!"
(Above) Team Churm goes red, white and blue at the Olympic swim center.
(Below) Oh Canada, our neighbors to the north.
(Below) An Oregon couple were a patriotic sideshow, posing for more than 30 minutes with Beijiners in the foyer of the Olympic swim center.