Something To Prove

Samori Benjamin

Lebron James scored 18 points in Team USA's 101-70 victory over host nation China in the Olympic opener.

Sixteen years ago the thought of United States basketball losing an Olympic game was unthinkable and not bringing home the gold was unfathomable.  Four years before that in Seoul, Korea at the 1988 Olympics, the national basketball program suffered an embarrassing bitter defeat at the hands of the Soviet Union.  Because of boycott by the Americans of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, and a returned boycott by the Soviet union of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles , the 1988 meeting between the two countries was their first in the Olympics since the 70’s.  In the 1972 gold medal game, the Soviet Union gave the United States their first basketball loss in Olympic history defeating them in the final seconds, in a highly controversial ending, by the score of 51-50.  The loss is arguably the most controversial in Olympic history.   The game was protested by the United States, the protest was denied by an appeals committee, and to this day the members of that 72’ team have refused to receive their silver medals which remain locked up in a vault in Lausanne, Switzerland. 

After the defeat in the 88’ gold medal game with a roster full of collegiate players the United States made the move to go with their best and got NBA players eligible to play on the 1992 Olympic team for the first time ever.   United States basketball was way too talented to lose in the Olympic games with their best sitting at home watching.  The thought at the time was to dominate the world in the game in which they were superior.  As the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain approached the buzz around the team was unprecedented, they were dubbed the “dream team” as basketball fans across the globe imagined with great anticipation what it would be like to see all that great NBA talent come together on one team.

The greatest team ever assembled hit Barcelona in iconic fashion.  They faced opponents who’d watched and admired them on television for years, and who were flat out in awe just to be sharing the same court as these NBA greats.  The names Jordan, Magic, Bird, Drexler, Ewing, Stockton, and Malone.  10 of the 12 members of that team were later named to the NBA’s 50 greatest players list in 1996.  The dream team blew out every opponent put in front of them.  Team USA head coach Chuck Daly did not call a single timeout throughout the tournament and their smallest margin of victory was 32 in the gold medal game they won over Croatia.   

The performance of the 92’ Dream Team in Barcelona fascinated the world.  It inspired kids in soccer playing countries to want to be like Mike, the same way American kids wanted to be like him.  Sports fans across the world loved the freedom and creativity that basketball allows.  In today’s NBA in 2008 the league is sprinkled with international players who have burst onto the scene.   All-stars Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol, who are representing Germany and Spain respectively in these summer games, both say that 1992 dream team is the reason they fell in love with the sport.   Basketball has a lot in common with the genre of hip-hop in the way they both began to become extremely popular overseas and  grow internationally in the early 1990’s, and now has a big following worldwide where its influence inside different countries are clearly visible. 

After the 92’ Olympics athletes around the world not only began to play the sport in a more serious manner but as the skills developed the confidence and hunger grew.  The 1996 summer games in Atlanta, Georgia however provided more dominance on the hardwood for the United States.  Team USA brought back five members from the 92’ team plus Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon and went on to win gold easily with an average margin of victory of 32.3 points per game.  Four years was enough for the world to raise their game, and in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia team USA failed to win a game by 10 or more points for the first time since NBA players began playing in the Olympics in an 85-76 win over Lithuania in the preliminary round.  In the semi-final round the teams met again and the Americans barely escaped with an 85-83 win.  This moment was the beginning of the end of dominance for the NBA led Team USA national team.  While the United States continued to field teams filled with all-stars it wasn’t the best names the NBA had to offer.

The loss in the 88’ Olympics left something for the 92’ dream team to prove.  The 92' team took pride in demolishing the basketball teams that the world had to offer, proving they were by far and away the best basketball players on the planet.  By the end of the 2000 Sydney games the appeal of playing in the Olympics had worn off for NBA players.  After all, the Olympics is an event comprised mostly of amateur athletes who are not making the millions of dollars that NBA players are.  For most Olympic athletes competing in the Olympics will be the peak of their athletic career with little financial reward.  For NBA players, the challenge of winning gold against foreign countries who everyone expected them to blow out anyway was far less than the challenge of winning a NBA championship.  Winning gold at the Olympics was expected from team USA.  Sacrificing summer vacation time for an Olympic gold medal was no longer as appealing for the NBA superstar.   For the rest of the basketball playing world however, the pursuit to knock off USA basketball was a quest to make history and the possibility of it happening became a realistic focus after the 2000 Olympics. 

The next time the United States put a national team on the court at the 2002 FIBA world championship, which took place on American soil, the results were disastrous.   Team USA lost for the first time since NBA players began playing, first losing to Yugoslavia and then Argentina.  Team USA finished the tournament in sixth place.  The 2002 roster was another All-star laden one capable of winning gold even though the true superstars of the league were missing.  But a lack of practice time and unfamiliarity between the players is all that was needed to close the narrowing gap between the United States and the world’s top challengers.  In 2004 at the Olympic games in Athens, Greece the point of preparation finally hit home with the United States as another more than capable team led by Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson, which included first year players Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Carmelo Anthony, were defeated in Olympic play for the first time since NBA players began playing.  While other countries sent national teams composed of players who had played together for years the players on team USA didn’t practice together for the first time until 20 days before the Olympics began.  The United States all-stars lost three games in total in the 04’ games and came back to the states with an embarrassing bronze medal. 

The disappointment of the 04’ Olympics caused the United States Olympic basketball committee to restructure how they did business.  No longer were they going to show up to the Olympics with a group of random NBA all-stars, with neither practice or experience under their belt as a team, and expect to win gold.  The United States basketball committee named former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Calangelo director of the 2008 squad and gave him sole responsibility for putting together the team.  Calangelo then brought in Duke University head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who was an assistant on the 92’ dream team, to be head coach.  Calangelo and Krrzyzewski then demanded that any player who wanted to participate on the 2008 team make a three year commitment to practice and participate in world tournaments during the summer following the NBA season in order to increase the chemistry on the team.  Even with the three year requirement in the mix Calangelo was able to recruit the cream of the NBA talent pool beginning with Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Carlos Boozer, all of whom were young players who barely saw any playing time on the 04’ team.  Add to that Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul who were the top two candidates for NBA MVP this past season, big men Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh, with three point specialist Michael Redd to go along with Jason Kidd, Deron Williams, and Tayshun Prince, and this USA Olympic squad has all the talent it needs.  Two summers ago however, in the first summer of the three year commitment a team made up of most of the players on this current 08' roster and coached by Mike Krzyzewski rolled through the FIBA 2006 world championships until they were stunned in the semi-final round by Greece, who had no NBA players on it's roster at the time, losing  101-95.

On paper none of the international teams can matchup with the United States.  That’s always been the case.  But the x-factor that has leveled the international playing field a bit has been better chemistry and preparation amongst  the top international teams such as Argentina, Yugoslavia (who are not in this tournament) Spain, and Greece.  The slightly different international rule changes one of which allows teams to play zone defense rather than man to man defense, which is what’s played in the NBA, allows international teams to clog up the paint to compensate for a lack of speed against the athletically dominant United States team.   Neutralizing a little the great one on one skills of the United States players.  Another rule difference in international ball is the shorter  distance of the three point line which international teams capitalize on more than anything else.

At the time of the 1992 Olympics there were just 4 international players in the NBA.  Now in 2008 that number has risen to 76.  A tell tale sign of the growth in basketball participation and skill level across the world.  There will be a number of NBA players playing for their countries in these Olympics including big name players, beginning with the reigning Olympic champions Argentina who are led by San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobli.  Other NBA players playing in Beijing Olympics include Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman of Germany, Pau Gasol on the Spain squad, Andrei Kirilenko of Russia, and Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian of host country China.  China was the first opponent for the United States on their quest for redemption on Sunday evening inside Beijing’s sold out Wukesong stadium.  Team China came out strong as expected in front of their raucous home crowd and the score was tied at 29 apiece with about six minutes to go in the first half.  It was only a matter of time however until Team USA started rolling, and they won going away by the final score of 101-70.  Dwayne Wade led the way going perfect from the field and free throw line to finish with 19 points, Lebron James added 18, while Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant finished with 13 apiece.  Led by superstars like these, it should only be a matter of time until Team USA recaptures gold in impressive fashion. 


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