When Secretariat was retired from racing and flew back to Kentucky, the air-traffic controller in Lexington told the pilot of the Triple Crown winner’s plane that there were more people there to see the horse than there had been to see the governor.
“Well, he’s won more races than the governor,” the pilot replied, or so the story goes.
Thursday, the United States men’s basketball team was forced to wait before making its first public appearance in Rio because IOC president Thomas Bach’s state-of-the-Olympics press conference ran long. When Bach was finished, only a few people left the hangar-sized, 710-seat conference room while more flooded in.
So there were more people to see the NBA stars than there had been to see the guy in charge of the entire Olympic movement.
Well, they’ve won more medals than Bach.
“I’ve never been in a press conference this big before,” DeMarcus Cousins said. “That’s pretty surprising to me.”
Although the medal gap between Bach and the U.S. Olympians isn’t all that big: The U.S. team, with 10 first-time Olympians, has a total of four medals – two gold and a bronze by Carmelo Anthony and one gold by Kevin Durant. Bach won a team gold in fencing with West Germany in 1976.
It was a reminder, especially for the American newcomers, just how big a story they will be at these games, as they always are. Basketball may increasingly be the world’s game, but the United States remains the team to beat, no matter who is or isn’t here, and the biggest collection of international stars at the entire Olympics.
“We try to tell them it’s going to be different, especially once we got here,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “What we told them is you’re going to be at a press conference that’s global, people from all over the world. For them, they probably were shocked.”
There shouldn’t be anything new about this. It’s not like the NBA is ignored back in the United States. This isn’t an every-four-years Olympic sport that crashes into the public consciousness like a meteor, like gymnastics or figure skating. These are players who live extremely public lives, who have huge endorsement deals, who manage relationships with the media every single day.
And yet it is new. It takes a lot to shock an NBA star. For the first-timers, this availability in the cavernous “Samba” room was shocking: a grand, elevated stage, hundreds of cameras, thousands of people, blinding lights.
Anthony and Durant are used to it, but it’s an important reminder of just how new this American team is to the world stage, not that the new players aren’t constantly reminded of it. While seated at a long table facing the madding crowd, Krzyzewski tapped Jimmy Butler on the knee and told him, “A lot of countries represented there. Continents. Just remember the stage that you’re on. It’s a global stage.”
“I think he’s told me that three times already,” Butler joked later. “I definitely realize it though. Seeing all these cameras out here, it’s a lot different than the Chicago media after or before a Bulls game.”
After descending from the stage, Krzyzewski stood in a knot of people in the middle of the room and fenced away questions from predominantly foreign reporters in accented English, asking him to assess Spain or Australia or Argentina. The players arrayed themselves casually along the perimeter, Cousins sitting on an elevated camera platform with his legs dangling, Butler on a chair against a wall.
Butler spent a lot of time that way after U.S. practices in Las Vegas last month, but he knew this was different. Or at least, he knew now.
“This is everybody,” Butler said. “All eyes on you, but I like that. Some bright lights.”
Coming into the room, the U.S. team crossed paths with Bach in the anteroom. The IOC president, already running late, still paused on his way out. He posed for a photo with the Americans.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock
2016 Rio Olympics
7:30 p.m. Friday (WRAL, WITN)