IN OLYMPIC HOOPS, DON’T FORGET DANCERS

BEIJING -“How you China do basketball tonight?”

This came from one of the more talented English speakers among the throng of young, eager workers in the lobby of my hotel, of which there seem to now be at least 20. (They apparently do not suffer unemployment in Beijing. I’m not sure they have a word for it.)

Anyhow, I told my young friend that I thought China would, politely, have its rump smacked. After all, it was playing our millionaires from the USA, dubbed the Redeem Team, because they’ve vowed to return the gold from the heathens. Sunday was the opener for NBA stars LeBron, Kobe, Carmelo and Dwyane. They were focused and ready, we were told. China, with one NBA player – the esteemed Yao Ming – was to have little chance, even though Yao, at 7-feet-6, is worth at least two normal-size Americans.

The game was very late, 10:15 at night, and it was a near monsoon outside, lightning and thunder and water so heavy I saw waves coming off the parking lot. I almost thought about packing it in, so sure was the outcome, but then I figured, hey, this is Beijing, and how many times do you drive past the Forbidden City en route to an NBA game?

So after finding a taxi, getting within half a mile of the giant Wukesong Indoor Stadium and being told by a guard, in the pouring rain, that my driver could go no farther, I had to walk through the storm, although I did hear the guard yell after me “I AM SORRY FOR INCONVENIENCE!” (Do they check up on these guys to make sure they were polite? Is that it?)

I finally reached the building, which looks like a giant birthday present in lime green wrapping. I pushed through the doors and … well, well.

The joint was rockin’. The early American struggles

“CHINA! (thump, thump) CHINA!”

OK. That probably wasn’t the word, but it sounded like it, and the thumping, electric atmosphere was unusual at the Olympics, where the venues are surprisingly small and often suffer empty seats from disinterested VIPs.

But this place had Chinese fans hanging over the rafters, cheering and banging their feet. It’s not every day, I guess, you see the world’s last superpower take on the would-be emperors of the planet.

“I like Kobe,” my young hotel friend had told me, which I thought was a bit deferential of him. But then I noticed the Chinese crowd clapping for dunks during the Americans’ warm-ups. For dunks?

I sensed a blowout.

But that is why they play the game. With President George W. Bush watching from the stands, the Chinese team, using a ball the colors of a Creamsicle, quickly lit up a trio of three-pointers, while Carmelo Anthony lost the rock, Kobe Bryant clanged one off the side of the backboard, and Jason Kidd snarled at a ref after a turnover. The crowd went nuts. With five minutes left in the first quarter, the United States still hadn’t seen a lead.

“JIA YOU!” (Basically, “Let’s go!”) “JIA YOU!”

And out came the dancers. Dominating in the paint

Yep. A group of halter-clad women called the Beijing Dream Dancers did a high-energy hip shaker. And the next time out we had the mascots, a small orange one and a large red one and they – guess what? – threw things into the crowd.

David Stern must be so proud.

In such an environment, it was only a matter of time before the NBA guys got going. So despite shooting an abysmal 1-for-12 on three-pointers, Team USA had enough dunks and breakaways to lead by a dozen at halftime. By the third quarter, the Americans led by 26. They won by 31, 101-70.

Still, it was a messy game, proving something I’ve always said: To look like a great NBA team you must be facing a less good NBA team. Otherwise it’s a train wreck. Too many loose balls, wild passes, clogged lanes, missed timing. Against China, the Americans scored 60 of their 101 points in the paint. The near paint. When in doubt, dunk.

“Last time I had five dunks in a game I was like 17,” Bryant told the media. “That’s all because of the energy in this crowd. I think they knew that history was being made tonight.”

Hey. We could lose this tournament. Don’t kid yourself. But not to China. And not Sunday. Nonetheless, the crowd stayed until the end, cheering every garbage time basket. And at the buzzer, they stood and applauded both teams. Be honest. You don’t see that too often in the NBA. You don’t drive home past Chairman Mao’s portrait, either.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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