Olympic Basketball: The Men of Team USA, a Preview

by Hayden Alfano

It wasn’t that long ago that the outcome of the men’s Olympic basketball tournament was ever in doubt. When the original “Dream Team” laced up their sneakers for the 1992 Olympics — three years after the International Basketball Federation (FIBA, by its French acronym) decided to allow American professional basketball players to participate — opposing players were by and large content to solicit autographs and take photographs with the game’s greatest players, such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird. The United States won all eight of its games in that competition, by an average of nearly 44 points, and it was hard to imagine another country even sniffing the gold medal as long as American pros were eligible to compete.

Slowly but surely, however, the U.S. began to show its vulnerability, as future editions of the team were less dominant. The 1996 squad, with an equally star-studded roster, again cruised to victory, but this time with an average margin of victory of “only” 32.3 points per game. Dream Team 3 also went undefeated on its way to 2002 Olympic gold, but came very close to losing to Lithuania in the semifinals and had a difficult time with France in the championship game.

The United States’ dominance came to an abrupt end in 2002, when a roster full of National Basketball Association (NBA) stars finished an almost unthinkable sixth in the FIBA World Championship, held on American soil, in Indianapolis. Then came a bronze medal in 2004 at the Athens Olympics, and another third-place finish in the 2006 FIBA championships.

It’s unlikely that USA Basketball will ever regain the dominance it held in the early 1990s, but the organization is eager for the team to return to gold-medal form. That mission has become more urgent in recent weeks, as several NBA players — including American Josh Childress — have spurned the league to sign lucrative contracts with European clubs (for more, please see, "Basketball: Why Josh Childress Traded Dollars for Euros"). There was even a report that LeBron James, the biggest star since Jordan, would consider playing in Europe for a year or two if given enough money. (James is one of the NBA stars on this year's U.S. Olympic squad.) The NBA is still the planet’s premier basketball league, and the United States still the planet’s premier basketball nation, but other nations have been closing the gap since 2002. Team USA has a chance to slow that building momentum with a convincing performance in this Olympiad.

USA Basketball set the wheels in motion after the 2006 FIBA championship, soliciting three-year commitments from players in an effort to quiet critics who complained that the organization was ignoring concepts like team chemistry and instead focusing on assembling as much talent as possible without giving them time to gel. Early results have been positive, as the United States has gone undefeated in five exhibitions leading up to the Olympics, although a rather uninspired performance against Australia in the final tuneup has some observers wondering if much has changed.

Still, the United States will be the tournament’s prohibitive favorite when the team takes the court for its first game on Sunday (Aug. 10), against China. (Center Yao Ming of the NBA's Houston Rockets will be leading the Chinese team.) The U.S. should win the gold medal rather easily, and anything less will be considered an epic failure. If the U.S. doesn't succeed, it will go down not only as the greatest upset in international basketball history, but also as a sure sign that the game has truly gone global.

(Television Schedule Note: The schedule for the men's team of USA Basketball shows NBC will televise the opening round game against China live at 10:15 a.m. EDT, Sunday, Aug. 10. The gold medal game is scheduled for Sunday Aug. 24 at 2:30 a.m. EDT on NBC with replays available later. NBC has also partnered with some satellite networks to provide 24-hour coverage of both the men's and women's Olympic basketball competitions.)

For pieces about the politics attached to the Olympic games, please see:

For other posts about the politics attached to the Olympic games, please see:

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