It’s different now.
Not just that Team USA has lost only once since Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo took over USA Basketball back in 2006 (and have won gold medals and two world championships), but there is now a real program, a culture where the “you must play for USA Basketball” mentality starts young.
“It was a prestige honor before, but once they came in and built up a culture, it totally changed into a different dynamic,” Kyrie Irving told NBCSports.com in Las Vegas. “Every generation that is coming up has to come through USA Basketball if you’re, quote/unquote, a top player in the country….
“I myself played when I was 17 years old going into Duke. I end up going (to college) for one year, then I end up playing on the select team that I’m playing against today (the NBA rookies and young stars that the USA scrimmages against).”
What was different back in 2000 — when the USA almost lost in the semifinals to Lithuania and looked vulnerable — and then in 2004 when the USA won bronze? Bill Leopold and Ben Teitelbaum of NBCOlympics.com put together a rich oral history of that time in a story you should read. Here are a few highlights of the 2004 run, when the USA won bronze.
Russ Granik (USA Basketball President, 1990-2000; NBA Deputy Commissioner 1990-2006): What happened was the fear of terrorism.
Mike Breen (NBC Olympics play-by-play announcer): I brought my family, my wife and children, with me on all the Olympic Games but I did not bring them to Athens. There was real heightened tension there about the possibility of something happening.
Chris Sheridan (ESPN basketball reporter): This was the first Olympics after 9/11. Everybody was hearing that the Greeks don’t have their act together and it was going to be dangerous….
There wasn’t what you have now, a desire to play for the national team that was really overwhelming. There wasn’t a program in which guys had come up through the select team or maybe through the U-16 or the U-18 team, which is what USA Basketball has now. It was more of a “Let’s just pick the 12 best players we can and put them out there. Look we’re Team USA; we are going to be able to beat everybody.”
Craig Miller (USA Basketball Chief Media/Communications Officer, 1990-present): Literally a couple days before training camp we were still adding people. People see LeBron James, Carmelo and D-Wade on the roster and they’re like, “How could you lose?” You’ve got to remember those guys were 19 years old, 18 years old, first time they’d ever played internationally, in most of those cases.
Those young players were being coached by Larry Brown, known in NBA circles as a guy who liked veterans over youth — he didn’t like the team makeup. He publicly criticized the team, which added to the tension.
In Athens, the USA got a wake-up call with an early loss to Puerto Rico in group play. Eventually, they lost in the semi-finals to a much better Argentinian team led by Manu Ginobili and a great class of players.
Andrés Nocioni (2004-16 Olympian, Argentina): In my mind, it was kind of that we controlled the game the whole game. We did it really well. I think USA never had the option to win the game.
Sheridan: Argentina schooled the U.S. with picks and rolls on the back-cuts, and that game wasn’t even competitive. Argentina kind of mopped the floor with them.
Breen: The game is still played at its best when five players are working together, and the United States just didn’t have enough of those moments, where Argentina it was like five guys on a string.
In the wake of that bronze (and the sixth-place finish at the World Championships two years earlier), USA Basketball was overhauled. The oral history gets into all of that, too.
Since then, they have just the one loss. The USA — again with a “second team” due to concerns about the host nation — are still the clear gold medal favorites heading into Rio. But it’s good to look back and remember.