Team USA has already won hearts and minds in China

BEIJING -- Win or lose Sunday against Spain, the members of the U.S. men's basketball team have been golden ambassadors for their country and their sport.

It happened so many times and in so many ways, no one could possibly count off how many hearts and minds they've won over -- both among the Chinese, and among other American athletes.

But a few random stories can help paint a picture of how gregarious and down-to-earth Team USA has been.

LeBron James said he has signed more than 1,000 autographs since arriving in Beijing, but he had given away only one pair of his sneakers. That happened earlier this week, when James looked up toward the balcony at Beijing Normal University, where the team was practicing, and saw a 12-year-old girl watching with her mother.

James motioned for her to come down, took her around to meet the other members of the team, took a photo with her (recounting the story Saturday, he remembered her name was Katherine), then removed his shoes, signed them and handed them over.

For Kobe Bryant, the aftermath of a simple handshake will stick in his memory.

"I was just walking out to the bus after a game," he said. "She was one of the volunteers, and she just started crying. That was a trip."

Bryant and his teammates set the tone for how they were going to act on their first night in town, when they arrived at their hotel, immediately went downstairs and said they wanted to go to the athletes' village to have a look around.

They were mobbed to such a degree that Chris Bosh said it was borderline scary, but they spent a couple of hours there, walking around and mingling with athletes from other countries -- just as they would do two nights later when they attended the Opening Ceremony and made it a point to work the crowd.

Four years ago in Athens, the American basketball players had isolated themselves on a balcony, away from the other athletes as the American federation was waiting to march into the stadium, and other athletes took such offense that they sought out journalists to tell the stories of how aloof and disconnected the basketball players had seemed.

That '04 Athens team rubbed a lot of folks back in the United States the wrong way, too. One of its signature bad moments came when the players arrived at the arena to watch the U.S. women's team play and were shown on television not really paying attention, sitting in a row with their headphones on, off in their own worlds. Away from the cameras, they were standoffish as well, such as the time in Belgrade on a pre-Olympic tour when they dined at a reception with the president of Serbia and stayed huddled in a corner, offending their hosts.

"The tough thing about that is it wasn't everybody, but we were guilty by association," recalled Carlos Boozer, one of four holdovers from the '04 team. "Hopefully we can change people's perspectives about us because we don't want people thinking we're jerks or a-------. We want people thinking we're representing our country correctly and are doing it the right way.

"We weren't told we needed to fix our image; this is just who we are. We're good people anyway."

One of the better stories to make the rounds Saturday as the Americans prepared to face Spain in the gold-medal game (2:30 a.m. ET Sunday) was a game of P.I.G. played between Bryant and Adam Wright of the U.S. water polo team, which also trained at BNU.

First shot: A dunk. "P" for Wright.

Second shot: A 3-pointer from the left wing. "I" for Wright.

Third shot: A launch from behind the backboard, up and over the glass and through the net. "G" for Wright, although he at least got a piece of the rim on his attempt.

Several players have made appearances on Chinese television's late-night talk show programs, and officials who travel with the team each day said the number of autographs and sneakers given out to young volunteers, security guards, police and military have been too numerous to tally.

Michael Redd described an endless stream of fans following him through a mall as he went shopping. People were asking him to stop and pose for a quick picture, or thrusting a piece of paper and a pen toward him for an autograph.

"They know all our stats, they know where we come from, they know everything about us," he said. "It's amazing -- it really is -- just how popular basketball has gotten. It really has gone global."

Still, in a country of 1.3 billion, there are some who remain oblivious to the stardom of the American players they have randomly bumped into. Take, for instance, the pair of middle-aged women running a concession stand at the base of the Badaling section of the Great Wall.

They met Dwyane Wade and had no idea who he was … even as he pointed to his own face on the bottle of Gatorade they were trying to sell him.

Wade recounted the story:

"Once I get down from my long journey, like a 45-minute walk, now I'm thirsty. So I'm looking for something to drink, and lo and behold I see a Gatorade. And I'm like: 'Can I get a Gatorade?' and they asked for some crazy amount of money, like 3,000 [yuan], and I looked at it and I saw my picture, and I looked at them and said, 'This is me,' and she was like, 'No, no. Money!' So I have to come up with the money. I had to buy three or four of them because of how thirsty I was, and I didn't even haggle her down. The kid in me came out. I was shocked to see my face on it. I've been with Gatorade [as an endorser] a couple years, but it just shocked me at that moment that I was there, on the bottle. So I invested into Gatorade as well."

If all goes well Sunday against Spain, this team's legacy will be the redemption it brought to USA Basketball after three straight international tournaments that ended with someone else winning gold medals: Yugoslavia at the 2002 World Championship in Indianapolis, when the Americans placed sixth; Argentina at the 2004 Olympics, when the Americans took bronze; Spain at the 2006 World Championship, when Team USA finished third.

But what will stick in the heads of the players who competed are the snapshots of the people they met, the places they've seen and the treatment they've received.

"The way they've treated us over here, that's what's going into the memory bank," Tayshaun Prince said. "People are treating us like we're on top of the world -- which we're not."

But the top of the world was only one more victory away, and the Americans were hoping to finish this tournament in the same manner in which they've played it -- with one last display of unquestioned supremacy.

"We want to win, we want to dominate and show we can still dominate the game," Wade said. "I know myself, as a fan, I want to see a good game; I don't want a see a team win by 20.

"But right now I'm not a fan, so I'm not worried about that."

Chris Sheridan is an ESPN.com Insider. He has covered the U.S. senior national team since the 1996 Olympics. To e-mail Chris, click here.