by Nick Rotunno

Well SLAMonline, the day is finally here. After paving roads, planting trees, watering flowers, building subways, the 2008 Olympic Games begin tonight. These are exciting times in old Beijing. The venues are ready for action, and the army of eager volunteers is assembled and waiting. Athletes, journalists, spectators – thousands have traveled to this land of heat and smog, this ancient city of armies and emperors, this jewel of the Far East. The world has arrived.

In many ways, the eighth of August is a typical day in Beijing. Hot and muggy, the sky is a hazy shade of white, with the usual smog hovering over the skyline. But some things are different. The roads are clearer than I have ever seen, because most of the city has the day off. Pedestrians still crowd sidewalks, pushing and shoving, but today expectation is in the air. There’s anticipation, almost tension, and you can feel the buzz if you walk down the street, if you listen to the murmurs and the chatter. Olympic fever has reached a heightened state.

As you probably know, it’s no coincidence that the Beijing organizing committee chose 8/8/08 as the date for their Opening Ceremony. Eight is a sacred number to the Chinese; a symbol of prosperity and good fortune. For the people of this city, the Games have been a part of their lives for years. They’ve had to deal with the dust of construction, the building crowds and the inconvenience of car quotas (only half the cars in the city are allowed to drive on a given day – a governmental ploy to cut down on the traffic and pollution). The huge Olympic countdown clocks (they’re everywhere in Beijing) have ticked down to zero, and finally, mercifully, the Games will commence. Hopefully this auspicious date, with all its lucky eights, will make these Olympics a resounding success.

As for myself, I have the day off today. Tennis doesn’t begin until the tenth, when my work begins in earnest. So, I intend to find a seat in a good bar around 5:00 or so, eat dinner and watch the OC. I thought about going down to the Bird’s Nest and trying to catch a glimpse of the festivities, but the place will surely be a madhouse. I’ll stick to watching on TV for now.

In basketball news, Team USA has arrived in Beijing. A few of my fellow volunteers work at the Main Press Center (MPC), where all of the high-profile press conferences are held. They get to watch the Team USA conference today, those lucky dogs. What I would give to see all those guys at the microphone, the tape recorders spinning, the cameras clicking, Coach K taking care of business. I wonder if anyone else will guarantee a gold medal. I hope not – I’m all for confidence, but cockiness is unbecoming.

Unfortunately, the team’s exhibition games in Shanghai were not televised on Beijing networks (at least not the ones I get in the dorms). But I was able to watch most of the USA -Australia game on ESPN 360, and a few things definitely stood out. For one, Dwyane Wade is unreal, back to his old dominant self. Flash was getting to the paint at will, crossing guys up, pulling that little through-the-legs shimmy he does so well. His penetration opened up a lot of easy buckets for the big men. The US half-court sets seem to rely mostly on the ability to go one-on-one with lesser defenders, with Kobe, LeBron or D-Wade blowing by people for easy dunks or kicking it out to open shooters. But, let’s be honest, half-court is not our strength. If we pressure the ball good things happen, with a lot of open-court flushes coming off of steals or tipped balls. When this team gets out and runs, the athleticism is scary. Nobody can dunk like us.

The Australia game wasn’t all roses, however. Remember, USA only won by 11 points, and the Aussies were in this thing until the end, even without their best player, Andrew Bogut. They didn’t back down from the Americans, which impressed me. Plus, their offense was fluid and crisp, with a lot of backdoor cuts and multiple-screen set plays. Hopefully Team USA’s defense will improve a bit before we take on the big teams like Spain and Argentina, who will play the same way the Australians did but at an even higher level. Of course, like the announcers were saying, Team USA could have been bored in Shanghai, ready to take it up a notch once the Games get rolling. Hopefully that’s the case, because even though we beat the Aussies, we seemed vulnerable at times.

The first Olympic game Team USA will play is on August 10th against China. It’s going to be huge, epic, monolithic – whatever adjective you want to use, I cannot wait for tipoff. I intend to head down to the basketball stadium and hang out while the game is in progress, either at the gate or in local watering hole with plenty of TV’s. I won’t be surprised if all of China tunes in for the game (which would be impressive, considering their 1.3 billion person population). It’s the Olympics, after all – anything’s possible.

And in completely un-basketball related news, I want to tell you about a very intimate experience I had with the real, ancient China.  My friends Anna, Diane and I hiked along an un-restored and mountainous section of the Great Wall, at a place called Jiankou. The Wall, built centuries earlier and entirely by hand, was in a state of disrepair. The forest had crept over the crumbling stones, sprouting green from the top of the Wall, and we hiked through prickly bushes and drooping trees. Insects buzzed all around us, some the size of small Zeppelins. Alongside us, vast valleys tumbled hundreds of feet into the green darkness of China. The mountains were sheathed in mist, black hills that rolled on and on toward a gray horizon. We reached a bleach-white section of the Wall that snaked for miles, climbing towards the mountain summit, with dilapidated towers that stood guard over the ancient stone. It was a beautiful place, untouched since the dynasties, and I felt free.

We camped on the top of a guard tower and spent a sleepless night trying to find a comfortable spot amidst the rocks. After a quick sunset that glowed orange in the hazy sky I felt very Eastern, very Zen, and I channeled my inner Phil Jackson high atop the Great Wall of China, the whole country spread out before me. Self- awareness proved elusive as the moths began to smack into my head, but the whole experience was still very enjoyable. While I’ve spent most of my time in dirty Beijing, there’s certainly more to China than crowded cities and huffing traffic.

Sorry to digress, but I thought it was a story that needed to be told. Stay in touch for more Olympic coverage, and I’ll be writing you guys soon. Take it easy fellas.