While the sport of basketball was invented in the United States of America in 1891, it did not become an official sport in the Olympics until 1936. And once it did, the Americans dominated the sport in spite of fielding amateur players, as was the rule at the time.
Even though there was competition with their Cold War opponents, the former Soviet Union, the breakup of the Soviet Union saw USA maintain their dominance in the sport in almost all editions.
Olympic basketball has seen its fair share of big wins and massive upsets. We look at five such moments that will be remembered for a long time to come.
1) 1992 – USA’s Dream Team wins Gold
Professional players who earned wages were not allowed to compete at the Olympics until a FIBA rule change in 1989 allowed USA to field their NBA players from the 1992 edition onwards. That decision saw the rise in the popularity of international basketball and raised the bar for international teams as NBA players decimated all before them.
Here’s a look at their squad: Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, (take a break here to gulp!) Scottie Pippen, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Chris Mullin and Christian Laettner (the only player who was still in college and also regarded as one of the greatest NCAA players of all time).
If the starting five did not deflate your confidence as an opponent, then the substitutes did. If one, or even two, players had a bad day at the office, seven others stepped up to remind you that you were just competing for the silver medal. So comprehensive were the blowout wins that USA topped their group with five wins in five games and a massive Points Difference of +229!
“I look to my right, there's Michael Jordan. I look to my left, there's Charles Barkley or Larry Bird. I didn't know who to throw the ball to!” – Magic Johnson
The aura of the team was also not lost on their opponents who were busy asking their teammates on the bench to click photos of them playing Jordan, Bird or Johnson. Croatia were the second best team at the Olympics and even they were defeated 103-70 in the group stage match and 117-85 in the gold medal game.
2) 1972 – USSR’s controversial Gold medal win
The 1972 Gold medal match marked the first time ever that USA lost a basketball match at the Olympics. Coming into the final with an enviable and astonishing 63-0 record, little did they know that the final moments of the game would see them eventually boycott the medal ceremony.
Both the Soviet Union and USA were undefeated going into the gold medal match and it was a closely contested tie with the score reading 49-48 to USSR when USA’s Doug Collins was fouled and went to the line for two free throws.
Collins converted both to give USA a 50-49 lead and that was when the horn at the match referee’s table went off which in turn set in motion a chain of events that saw the referees restart play three times. Play was restarted the first time for a time-out that was eventually not taken while the second time it was restarted because the clock was not reset to the correct time.
On both those plays, the Soviets failed to make their inbound pass count and had the results stood, USA had won the game on both occasions. However, on the third and final inbound pass, Ivan Edeshko hurled the ball to the other end where Sergey Belov shrugged off the challenges of Jim Forbes and Kevin Joyce to lay the ball in before the final buzzer and give them a 51-50 win.
Further appeals from USA officials were rejected and the medal ceremony saw only two teams (Soviet Union and bronze medal winners Cuba) turn up at the podium. Even to this day, USA have refused to accept the silver medals.
3) 1996 – USA Women win the Gold at home
Just like their male counterparts, USA’s women’s team also dominated the sport and have won the gold medal seven times out of 10 at the Olympics. The Soviet Union women’s team had won in the first two editions in 1976 and 1980, but the breakup saw them lose their stranglehold on the event save for the 1992 Olympics where a unified team won the gold.
But the 1996 gold medal win marked a new era for women’s basketball in the United States. The WNBA was officially approved in 1996 and much was expected of the team that was to take part in the Olympics that were being hosted in Atlanta.
The likes of Sheryl Swoopes (the first player to be signed in the WNBA and future 3-time WNBA MVP), Lisa Leslie (also a future 3-time WNBA MVP) and Dawn Staley (future 6-time WNBA All-Star) led team USA to wins over both NCAA teams and international opponents. So good was the team that even before the Olympics they had a 52-0 win-loss record!
With a Points Difference of more than 100 more than the next best team, they stormed their way to the final and beat Yugoslavia in the Gold Medal match to win on home soil.
4) 2004 – Argentina upset USA en route to Gold medal
USA may have dominated Olympic basketball in the ‘90s and 2000 after professional players were allowed to compete. But they were in for a rude awakening in 2004 when they lost their first ever game at the Olympics after NBA players made the team.
To make matters worse, USA actually lost three games on their way to a disappointing Bronze medal finish. In spite of stalwarts such as LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Dwayne Wade and Carmelo Anthony making the squad, they were first beaten by Puerto Rico and then Lithuania before the knockout stage.
Although they beat Spain in the quarter-final, they came across Argentina’s Golden Generation with Manu Ginobili leading the charge. El Alma Argentina beat USA 89-81 with superior ball rotation, sticking to the basics and simply making fewer errors than the Americans who were also guilty of shooting at less than 50%.
“You can't just walk up and put a team together in two weeks and beat a team that's been playing together for years.” – Sam Mitchell (Former player and coach)
It gave the South American side a huge boost ahead of the final where they eventually beat Italy to take the Gold.
5) 2000 – Vince Carter dunks over France’s 7'2" center
Michael Jordan may have been a flamboyant dunker who could soar through the air and inspired every player of this generation who took up basketball. But Vince Carter is probably the greatest dunker of all time because of his power, elevation, and hang-time in the air.
“Half man, half amazing” was what Carter was called in his prime. There’s even a 10-minute YouTube video with highlights of Carter’s 100 greatest dunks – right from high school to the NBA.
But nothing will come close to what he did to Frederic Weis – France’s 7’2” center. In the final group stage match in Sydney, when France thought they had a fast-break, Carter pounced on a loose ball and made his way to the basket with only Weis standing in his way. The 6’6” Carter set himself up for a dunk and leaped over Weis who could only duck as Carter slammed the ball into the ring to make the entire stadium erupt.
Even the French commentators couldn’t help but laugh at what they had just witnessed.