BEIJING – The U.S. men's Olympic basketball team dazzled U.S. President George W. Bush and perhaps a billion more fans in one of the most anticipated events of the Summer Games.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and company put on a dunk contest Sunday night against China, playing up to the basketball-crazed Chinese fans that packed the arena. While the Americans struggled shooting jump shots, the Americans soared for an array of reverse slams and tomahawk jams drawing oohs and ahhs from the fans as they cruised to a 101-70 victory.
Wade scored 19 points and James had 18 for the Americans. Kobe Bryant finished with 13 points.
But the score and the game didn't seem to matter, this was an event.
China's Yao Ming, All-Star center for the Houston Rockets, finished with 13 points. He started the showcase by drilling a 3-pointer from the top of the key for the first score of the game.
Bush and his family were wrapping up another long day of sports, more than 12 hours after they watched swimmer Michael Phelps win his first gold medal of these games.
The guys Bush caught here expect to bring home gold, too.
The Americans made 21 of their first 25 shots inside the 3-point arc, though they had another inept night behind it. Still, with James, Wade and Bryant repeatedly getting out on the break, the poor 3-point shooting wasn't a problem on this night.
NBA players are wildly popular in China, where the league estimates 300 million people play basketball. The Americans, still known as the Dream Team here, enjoyed a huge backing during exhibition games in Macau and Shanghai, support that will surely help them here on their gold-medal quest.
Bush came out first, walking to his seat above center court about a half hour before the 10:15 start. He was still shaking hands and slapping five with fans around him minutes later when Yao, back from season-ending foot surgery in March, led China's players onto the floor to a thunderous ovation.
The Chinese team gathered in the center circle and waved to their flag-waving fans, then began their pre-game warm-ups. Fans remained standing and let out another roar when Yao made his first hoop — possibly the first standing ovation ever for a layup line.
The Americans sprinted out a few minutes later to an ovation that was just as loud. They were wearing their home white uniforms — and it felt like a game with two home teams. A listener going just by the noise from the crowd would have never known which team just scored.
Fans throughout the arena chanted "Jia You! Jia You!" (Let's go!) and cheered plays on both ends. There was nothing resembling a boo until the referees called Yao for a blocking foul, instead of the charge he hoped for, on a basket by James almost 5 minutes into the game.
Yao's 3-pointer to start the game sent the crowd back into a frenzy and China stayed in the game for a while by hitting from behind the arc. The Chinese hit eight of their first 12 attempts, with Sun Yue's 3 tying it at 29 with 6:09 remaining in the second quarter.
The Americans then started forcing turnovers by China's smaller guards — long the team's Achilles' heel — and broke open the game with a series of layups and dunks. That helped the U.S. score 10 straight, highlighted by James' spectacular one-handed slam of Wade's alley-oop pass, to build a 45-32 lead with under 2 minutes left in the half.
The lead reached 20 when Wade hit two free throws with 2:39 remaining in the third quarter, and the U.S. team kept building on it from there. Michael Redd's 3-pointer with 6:54 to play made it 84-50 and sent Bush and his family to the exits.
Yao checked out about 2 minutes later, raising a fist to the appreciative fans who were still cheering even in the blowout.
The Americans face Angola on Tuesday. Things don't get any easier for the Chinese, who face world champion Spain.