Credit: FIBA
Credit FIBA

There is a strange link between the USA and men's Olympics basketball. A peculiar connection that only a few other sports have with the Olympic rings. The game itself was invented relatively late and became a part of the program only in 1936. However, the bond became so powerful that it created many stories that helped basketball go global.  

When NBA stars finally joined the Olympic extravaganza in Barcelona in 1992, Team USA became an Olympic myth. Metaphorically speaking, this was nothing short of a meteorite hitting the sports sphere. The impact was enormous and long-lasting. Shackled and mesmerized were not only the hapless opponents of the Dream Team but also our basketball imagination. It held nothing but a powerful descriptive: this team was invincible. Such a powerful image could not be erased overnight, and Dream Team-II of '96 gave everything to intensify this compelling image of invincibility. 

However, myths could sometimes be misleading. Even after some challenging games and memorable losses throughout history, it's not easy to get convinced that Team USA would lose a single game, let alone the Olympic gold medal. But make no mistake: men's Olympic basketball was never just about the USA. The Soviets and the unforgettable Munich '72, the Yugoslavian perfection, the Lithuanian existentialist strive, the Argentinean saga, the Anti-Redeem Spanish, the Puerto Rican rebellion. The list goes on. The common denominator, Team USA, found itself on the winning and, occasionally, on a losing side but never failed to be at the center of the action.  

We are just about to start a new Olympic chapter, and once again, Team USA is the one everyone wants to beat. Considering the defeats conceded against Nigeria and Australia during the preparations, this could be a good point for a nostalgic exercise to dig into history and refresh our memories when, where, and how the Team USA struggled to meet Olympic expectations. 

1972 Munich 

Barcelona '92 is perceived as the "turning point" in Olympic history, but the final in Munich '72 wrote a story for ages. After 36 years of dominance in Olympic basketball and 62 straight wins, the USA was finally defeated by the USSR. But perhaps the importance of this historic occasion was dwarfed by the massive controversy in the end. Doug Collins was fouled on his lay-up attempt and hit his head after a hard fall. Fortunately, he was conscious, and Henk Iba, the US coach, coined his famous dictum: "If he can walk, he can shoot the free-throws." When Collins made both free throws, the USA to the lead for the first time 50-49. There were only 3 seconds left on the clock. 

Then the game restarted, not once, not twice but three times. One of those times was on an alleged timeout call by the Soviet coach Vladimir Kondrashin, and the second one was due to a malfunctioning game clock. The USA celebrated twice but to no avail. After the third restart, an extraordinarily long and accurate inbound pass from Ivan Edeshko ensued. The designated receiver, Alexander Belov, towered over his two opponents, made the bucket, and brought USSR into uncharted territory in men's basketball: an Olympic gold. 

Before the Big Impact

1976 Montreal 

Four years later, the USA were eager to serve "justice." However, they were unaware of other threats. Puerto Rico were chasing their share of Olympic glory long before the 2004 Athens. Born in Puerto Rico but raised in New York, Butch Lee was overlooked during the US Olympic trials. Indeed, he had many things to prove against the legendary Dean Smith, coaching the US that summer. After 22 lead changes, Puerto Ricans fell one point short of a famous Olympic shocker; the Americans won 93-92. Once again, the last seconds were not without controversy. Butch Lee did everything with a scintillating 35 points performance, but he was charged with an offensive foul on a potential game-winner. 

Eventually, the USA survived and remain undefeated, but this game turned out to be a wake-up call for them. Yugoslavians denied the rematch as they knocked the Soviets out in the semifinals, and the USA had not had much difficulty winning against Yugoslavia in the final. 

Los Angeles 1984 

Everything seemed fine during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic tournament as the USA marched with ease in the groups; an average margin of 39.2 points would suffice to illustrate. The star-studded team involved 1984 Draft pick No. 3 Micheal Jordan and 1985 Draft pick No. 1 Patrick Ewing, who led Georgetown Hoyas to the NCAA title that year. However, a surprise attempt of disruption came from an unexpected opponent. West Germany was a late addition to the tournament following the boycotts of Hungary and the USSR, but they had their weapons, too. The team involved Washington Huskies member Detlef Schrempf, and their coach was famous Ralph Klein, who coached Maccabi Tel Aviv towards victory in the top-level European club competition in 1977. Klein challenged his opponent, Bob Knight, by slowing down the tempo and introducing some confusing zone defense combinations. Missing 10 of his 14 shots, Micheal Jordan was struggling to find his rhythm. Instead, Steve Alford came to the rescue with valuable 17 points off the bench. Germans managed to outscore the USA 35-32 in the second half, but this courageous effort was not enough to overcome an Olympic brand as good as the USA. 

Seoul 1988 

In Seoul in 1988, the scenery was changing. Thick lines drawn between professionalism and Olympic amateurism were already blurring throughout different sports, but NBA players were still not allowed to play. Renowned Georgetown coach John Thompson built a team that prioritized tough defense, quickness, and speed. But his team did not have star power on the caliber of Jordan or Ewing as it had in Los Angeles '84. On the other hand, the Soviets were eager to prove themselves after 16 years of longing for an Olympic final. USSR won against USA 82-76, gained a gold medal for the second time, and finished a streak of 21 undefeated games for Team USA. Bringing NBA players into Olympics was not a unilateral suggestion, but most likely, a second defeat served as a catalyst for the US to reach a consensus.  

A Myth Resolving and A Redeem to be Tested

Sydney 2000

Dream Teams of 1992 and 1996 were sensational and transformative regarding basketball within the international sports scene. However, the rest of the world was not standing still. Sydney 2000 became a good reminder. Lithuanians came very close to become the first team to overcome NBA starts in an Olympic tournament. And not even once. First, during a group stage, Eurelijus Zukauskas came to the free-throw line but missed both shots. There was 1:09 left on the clock, and the difference in score was only 5 points. This may sound a little bit strange because fans were so accustomed to Dream Team(s) winning with comfortable double-digit leads. 

The second try was even closer. This time, it was in the semifinals. Lithuania was 14 points behind at the beginning of the 2nd half, but they managed to come back, and the game suddenly turned into a very close encounter. With 43 seconds left on the clock, Siskauskas went to the foul line for three free-throws and a score tied at 80-80. Famously, he hadn't missed a free-throw up until then, but infamously, he made only one out of the three. Afterward, Jasikevicius chose to go for the lay-up instead of a three-ball to make it a one-point game with 11.4 seconds left. Jason Kidd made only one free-throw possession later but managed to force Jasikevicius into an off-balance 3-point shot at the buzzer. To no avail. For a very famous Olympic win against the USA, Lithuania had to wait for four more years, and they were not the only ones to contemplate about them. 

Athens 2004 

With the advent of 2000, new pages were beginning to be written in the book of international basketball. Argentina and Yugoslavia suspended the myth of the Dream Team at the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis. Two years later, in Athens, Olympic basketball gods would become mortals for good. When Puerto Rico struck in the first game of the group stage, it was a total shock. Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, and Lebron James were all left stunned as Larry Ayuso, Carlos Arroyo, and Jose Ortiz led Puerto Ricans to dominate the whole game. While they were finishing the unfinished job from 1976 Montreal, the USA could not even try to get back into the game. It was an intriguing collapse. 

The seal was broken for the first time in 16 years, and once the foundations of a myth became questionable, everybody started to believe in their chances. Their responsive, quick recovery turned out to be illusionary as Team USA stalled and lost against Lithuania and, eventually, the golden generation of Argentina. Team USA that came to Athens with a 109-2 Olympic record was out of gold medal contention for the second time in Olympic basketball history. Suddenly, it became apparent that NBA stars, at least some of them, do not guarantee an Olympic gold. A sharp change of paradigm was urgently needed. 

A Redeem to be Retested 

Certain lessons were drawn regarding transforming the superiority of individual talent to the modern realities of international basketball. College coaches were out of fashion with Dream Team '92, but it was time to turn back to the basics. The beginnings of the new path, led by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski were bumpy as Greeks joined the victors' club against the NBA players in the 2006 World Champs. Therefore, the 2008 Olympics in Beijing became a particular project for Team USA: A Redeem for Olympic gold. Eventually, pride was restored with three Olympic golds and two World Champs titles.

Nevertheless, some challenging moments were present during this glorious march. And none more prominent than the Beijing 2008 final. The USA controlled the game almost from beginning to end, but every time Spain rallied back from double digits. Team USA, led by Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, and Lebron James, should need no further explanation. But how about Rudy Fernandez dunk over Dwight Howard late in the 4th quarter? And where could this game go if Jimenez made a 3-pointer with 1:35 left on the clock? 

Four years later, in London, the Spanish managed to give another fight for gold to Team USA. We should keep in mind that this was only a 1-point game at the beginning of the 4th. Only a late intervention by SWAT members Kevin Durant, Lebron James, and Kobe Bryant sealed the win. And for the record: the occasional attempts of Sergio Rodriguez to bully the opponent was something to be remembered. But in the end, a mission was accomplished by the USA. The NBA players, coach Krzyzewski, and his assistant crew figured out how to adapt against more continuous offenses and perplexing zone defenses. International basketball was reconquered. 

After a tumultuous period between 2000 to 2008, the USA's struggles to reach the Olympic gold in basketball gradually lessened after Beijing. In Rio 2016, there was this probably forgotten shot by Bogdan Bogdanovic, though. It all came down to a windfall 3-point attempt generated from a broken last-second play. If successful, this could have forced overtime, but the missed rimshot cost Serbia a chance to become the first team to win against the USA after the 'redeem'. On the Olympic level, 'redeem' remained intact. But a cloud of doubt was thickening on team USA. With concerns and criticism after defeats during preparation games, tension is already rising. The USA is playing the very first game of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic tournament against France. That France, which knocked the USA out of the last World Cup. Indeed, the 'redeem' would be retested soon. 


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