BEIJING - The key members of the U.S. men's Olympic basketball team thanked each other profusely, the players lauding the coaches and management, with the favor being returned.

They should have been thanking Allen Iverson and Larry Brown, and the 2004 Olympic team.

The 2008 Olympic team finished undefeated after beating Spain 118-107 on Sunday in the gold medal game. The players danced and hugged like high school kids who had just won the state championship, then insisted on the entire team showing up for the postgame news conference.

This is why they should have been thanking Iverson, Brown and the rest of their predecessors: Without the United States' 5-3 finish and disappointing bronze in Athens, what the 2008 team accomplished would have been considered routine, not the stuff of wild celebrations.

The United States has the best players in the world. That was proved again in Beijing, as the U.S. won by an average of 30 points before the final, which a number of American players and coaches said could be one of the greatest games in Olympic history.

Without the losses and backbiting in Athens, winning the gold in 2008 would have been expected. With the U.S. failing to win a major international tournament since 2000, USA basketball boss Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski knew they had to make dramatic changes.

So instead of putting together an All-Star team, they recruited players they believed would commit time and energy to the cause, players they believed would work well together. They even came up with a snappy nickname: The Redeem Team.

How often do grand plans succeed? This one did.

Krzyzewski's bond with his players was evident throughout the tournament. A lot of college coaches couldn't handle 12 NBA egos, but Coach K's résumé, personality and willingness to cede control to his players made him the perfect choice for this team.

Colangelo conducted numerous interviews with prospective players the past few years, trying to weed out undesirable personalities. The team he chose played hard, played cohesively and represented themselves well off the court around Beijing, even visiting the Olympic Village and showing up at a lot of premier events.

Kobe Bryant managed to be the primary scorer without dominating the ball, and his perimeter defense, along the rest of the United States' perimeter players, caused most of the blowouts.

Strange as it might sound after watching them win the gold, this team had flaws. Spain, especially Pau Gasol, had it easy on the inside against a U.S. team with only one true center, Dwight Howard. The United States was vulnerable to easy baskets when its perimeter defense didn't force a turnover.

The U.S., though, wasn't going to lose unless it beat itself. Spain edged as close as two points early in the fourth quarter and was within five in the last three minutes of the game.

Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade was the United States' best player all afternoon, but it was Bryant, the most popular man in Beijing, who made most of the clutch baskets down the stretch, including a four-point play that gave the U.S. a nine-point lead with 3:12 left.

Wade hit a three-pointer off a pass from LeBron James with 2:08 remaining.

Wade shot 9-for-12 from the field and finished with a game-high 27 points. He couldn't crack the starting lineup, but he was the best player on the court.

"This is going to be a tough blueprint to follow, right here,'' Wade said. "It's going to be tough to put another team together like this.

"But the way we represented ourselves, the way we came out and enjoyed this experience, I think it's going to set USA basketball up pretty good.''

Colangelo agreed, and said, "We want to get to the point where young basketball players in the U.S. grow up dreaming about the Olympics.''

Krzyzewski has won three NCAA titles. He's a demigod in North Carolina. Here at the Olympic Basketball Gymnasium, the announcement of his name never elicited a cheer, and yet he said, "This has been the greatest experience of my life.''

If not for the failure in Athens, would everybody be this happy?

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP.