Sydney, Australia One by one they bowed their heads to receive their gold medals, their wide, genuine smiles lighting up the Sydney SuperDome.
Hard to tell whether they were smiles of joy or relief. Most likely it was a mix of the two.
The basketball gold medal didn't come all that easily for the U.S. men, who let France creep within four points with 4 minutes left.
After that, however, there was no repeat of Lithuania's near miracle in the semifinals. Vince Carter had a double-pump dunk with 1:40 left and the U.S. team scored nine of the game's final 12 points to defeat France 85-75 today (Saturday night EDT).
It was the 12th gold medal in 14 Olympic basketball competitions for the United States, but this one will be remembered as the Olympics when the rest of the world caught up.
"We played together, and came up and proved we're the best team in the world," Allan Houston said. "It was a little bit tougher than I thought. Nobody can tell us we didn't earn it. That's what makes it even more special.
"We had to play every second for the gold medal that we got."
The final victory margin of 10 points was the lowest ever for the United States in a gold-medal victory. It was the fifth time in these Olympics that the Americans won by 15 or fewer points, quite a difference from 1996 and 1992 when the U.S. teams won every game by at least 22 points and often had victory margins of 40 points or more.
"What this Olympics demonstrated is that the competitive level of international basketball has improved more so than casual observers of the game understood," NBA commissioner David Stern said.
That competitiveness didn't manifest itself in the gold medal game, at least not to the degree it had in the semifinals.
France led only twice, 2-0 after scoring the first basket of the game and 7-6 on two free throws by Stephane Risacher following a technical foul on Gary Payton for getting in the face of a French player during a stoppage in play.
Still, the Americans found themselves leading just 76-72 after Antoine Rigaudeau hit a 3-pointer with 4:26 left to complete a 16-4 run that turned a slow-paced, foul-plagued game into an interesting one.
Kevin Garnett followed with a put-back after the U.S. team grabbed two offensive rebounds, Alonzo Mourning hit two foul shots and Garnett scored on a bank shot to restore a 10-point lead and end any thoughts France might have had of duplicating Lithuania's feat of two days earlier.
"Just wanted to keep it going," Carter said. "Didn't want to make it this far to quit."