United States guard James Harden dunks against Puerto Rico during a game at Madison Square Garden. Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters
Since 1992, every consolidation of the United States men’s basketball team has featured NBA players. That legendary squadron in particular had to live up to a name by which every team since has been measured against, that of being the “Dream Team.”
After being left with nothing but a bronze medal to show for the Seoul Olympics in 1988, FIBA opened the Olympics to professional basketball players for the first time. What followed is the greatest amalgamation of talent ever assembled in a basketball roster.
With Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Magic Jordan, the US had three of the best players to ever put on a pair of sneakers. Jordan’s Chicago Bulls sidekick, Scottie Pippen, joined up, as did the Utah Jazz tandem of John Stockton and Karl Malone. New York center Patrick Ewing and San Antonio big man David Robinson manned the slot, while Golden State’s Chris Mullin would provide shooting on the wing with Portland’s Clyde Drexler. The lone amateur on the squad was Christian Laettner of Duke. Incoming Phoenix Sun Charles Barkley would win the NBA’s MVP award the following season.
This squad was coached by two-time NBA Champion Chuck Daly, and was treated like rock stars the moment they came together. In every game they played, the competition habitually paused for pictures with the Dream Teamers before the game, who then blew them out once hostilities began. So dominant was the USA that Daly didn’t call a single timeout throughout the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and the achievement of the gold medal was deemed a mere formality.
The 1994 FIBA World Championships held in Toronto, Ontario, Canada would feature a completely different lineup as the NBA wanted to feature different players for the showcase event. Coach Don Nelson tabbed Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Derrick Coleman, Shawn Kemp, Larry Johnson, Dominique Wilkins, Reggie Miller, Mark Price, Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, Steve Smith and Joe Dumars for what would be called “Dream Team II.”
The sneering and dunking antics of Coleman, O’Neal, and Kemp in particular didn’t quite earn this roster as much love as the ’92 squad did, but they still won gold with ease.
With the 1996 Atlanta Olympics being held right in the USA, excelling while winning gold was given importance, and five original Dream Teamers, namely Barkley, Robinson, Pippen, Malone and Stockton were asked to return. O’Neal was joined by naturalized American Hakeem Olajuwon even as Miller was also asked back and they were joined by Anfernee Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, Gary Payton, and Grant Hill for the Lenny Wilkens-mentored quintet. The result was another relatively easy gold medal.
Lethargy sets in
After no NBA players joined the participating in the 1998 FIBA World Championships owing to the NBA lockout, the roster was composed mostly of college players, veterans from the minor league Continental Basketball Association, and European leagues.
The 2000 Sydney Olympics showed chinks in what had previously been impervious USA Basketball armor. Coach Rudy Tomjanovich’s roster was composed of Payton, Mourning, and Smith as returnees while Kevin Garnett, Vin Baker, Ray Allen, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Tim Hardaway, Allan Houston, Jason Kidd, Antonio McDyess, and Vince Carter signing up for the first time. This team is probably most famous for Carter’s dunk over 7-foot-2 French center Frederic Weis in the early stages. By barely beating Lithuania, 85-83, in the semifinals and France, 85-75, for the gold, the rest of the world took note that they had begun to catch up with the NBA-powered American team.
Fall from grace
If the 2000 Olympics showed chinks in the armor, the 2002 FIBA World Championships in Indianapolis, Indiana showed full-scale craters. An Argentinean squad with Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola became the first team ever to defeat a USA men’s basketball team composed of NBA players by downing the Americans in the preliminary group stage. Yugoslavia (with Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic in tow) then beat the George Karl-coached team in the quarterfinals before the Spanish side led by Pau Gasol embarrassed the Americans to leave them sixth in the tournament.
Things didn’t get any better in the 2004 Athens Olympics in what was supposed to be a return to form with a hungrier US squad. Coach Larry Brown famously alienated a team that had LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. “Lowly” Puerto Rico immediately slammed the US back to earth with a 92-73 result in their first game in Athens, followed by losses to Lithuania and Argentina to take them out of gold medal contention. Despite salvaging a bronze against Lithuania, this was seen as an embarrassment, and major changes needed to be instituted.
Road to redemption
The first change was placing former Phoenix Suns executive Jerry Colangelo to take charge of USA Basketball, and Colangelo followed by appointing multi-titled college coach Mike Krzyzewski to put the team together. “Coach K” was viewed as one of the few men who could earn the respect of NBA players and someone who could emphasize the pride that had seemingly been lost in previous tournaments.
Entering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a sleeker, more determined US team was assembled with Kobe Bryant, James and Wade as anchors. Dubbed the “Redeem Team,” this squad consisted of Kidd, Anthony, Carlos Boozer, Dwight Howard, Tayshaun Prince, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Michael Redd. With Bryant volunteering to focus on defense and shutting down the best player on other teams, Anthony, James and Wade carried the offense. They got back at tormentors Argentina in the semifinals, then took down Spain, 118-107, to recapture the lost gold.
Reclaiming FIBA gold
Having not won the FIBA World Championships since 1994, Krzyzewski used that as motivation for a team that lost Bryant, Anthony, James and Wade, but added Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose to act as leaders in this tournament held in Istanbul, Turkey. Kevin Love, Lamar Odom, Chauncey Billups, Russell Westbrook, Rudy Gay, Andre Iguodala, Stephen Curry, Danny Granger, Eric Gordon, and Tyson Chandler filled out the team that defeated the Turkish hosts by 17 points in the gold medal game.
The 2012 London Olympiad would mark Bryant’s final participation for the US, thus he wanted to go out on top. Merging rosters from the ’08 Olympics and the ’10 World Champions, James, Anthony, Chandler, Durant, Westbrook, Williams, Iguodala, Love and Paul all returned. Only James Harden and Anthony Davis were new to international competition. Once again taking out an ageing Argentina, 109-83, in the semis, it was a more difficult task to squeak by Spain, 107-100, for the gold.
Clearly, the rest of the world has been catching up with the US in international basketball. While the original Dream Team became ambassadors of the game for a global audience, the NBA benefited as more and more players entered the association from outside US borders. When the US has needed to regroup and refocus, they’ve been able to retake gold at both the Olympics and the World Championships.
However, with a freak injury to Paul George, and the declining of rosters spots by stars such as Durant, Love, Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge, Coach K’s squad might just be ripe for another upset at this year’s FIBA World Cup in Spain.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.