The 10 Most Memorable Moments in Olympic Basketball History
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When it was first introduced as an Olympic sport in 1936, players over 6'2" were almost banned from competition and the final game was played on a soaked clay-and-sand court. Hard to believe these days for one of the headlining sports of the Summer Games...
The Olympic hardwood has seen it all: dramatic victories, disappointing upsets, some of the world's most famous athletes, and even political controversies. Additionally, playing on the Olympic stage has been one of the main driving forces behind the rapid international growth of the sport.
The following are the 10 most memorable moments in recent Olympic basketball history.
10. End of an Era: Shuffle of Superpowers (1992)
Basketball at the 1992 Games marked the end of an era for two countries.
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Drazen Petrovic was the second-leading scorer in the 1992 Barcelona Games—ahead of any member of the Dream Team—with an average of 24.6 points. On top of that, he led his newly established country, Croatia, to a silver medal.
But fans of international basketball can't help but wonder what could have been if the Eastern Europe geo-political landscape had not changed so much between the Seoul and Barcelona Games. The Soviet Union dissolved, and its national team players went on to compete with newly formed teams/states such as the Commonwealth of Independent States or Lithuania, which harbored four of the six top scorers from the 1988 gold-medal Soviet team.
As for Yugoslavia, if it weren't for war, Petrovic would have been flanked by former countryman and Los Angeles Lakers legend Vlade Divac (as well as Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja).
"I feel bad we didn't have the opportunity to play in the 1992 Olympic Games against the real Dream Team," Divac told Brian Mahoney of the Associated Press in 2010.
Divac and Petrovic never did play together again. At just 28 years old, Petrovic died tragically by car accident during the summer of 1993 just as his NBA career with the New Jersey Nets was taking off.
In 1992, the U.S. may have been able to take out years of frustration having been forced to previously compete against pros as amateurs in the international game, but the Barcelona Games also marked the end of the battle of the superpowers. The door would open for other countries—including Spain, Lithuania and Argentina—to create new legacies and change the landscape of international basketball.
9. Any Time the Dream Team Was on a Fast Break (1992)
An old-school highlight reel serving up plenty of a Dream Team delicacy: the fast break.
Watching the original Dream Team perform back in '92, one aspect of the game quickly became the most anticipated—without fail—with that squad: the fast break.
Team USA would steal the ball and all of a sudden you had Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler and Scottie Pippen filling the lanes. Or Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley. Or John Stockton, Karl Malone and Chris Mullin.
You get the idea. It was a Hall of Fame combination virtually every time down. Whatever the combo, each of these moments forced spectators' heart rates to rise and mouths to drop in anticipation of what greatness might unfold—a brilliant pass from Magic at the flip of a wrist, a gliding Drexler finish, a Jordan tongue wag as he flushed one in the face of an opponent, a Sir Charles or David Robinson rock-the-rim dunk.
8. Vince Carter's Dunk Heard Round the World (2000)
With more than 4 million views on YouTube, Vince Carter's dunk is definitely memorable.
The notoriously high-flying Vince Carter turned a routine steal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics into one of the most memorable Olympic basketball highlights of all time.
In a preliminary-round game against France, the 6'6" Carter elevated over the head of France’s 7'2" center Frederic Weis to throw down a nasty one-handed dunk. Weis could do nothing but duck his head and allow himself to be “posterized.”
Weis received no defense from his own country. The French media began referring to the play as “le dunk de la mort”—the dunk of death—according to this 2008 Sports Illustrated article on dunking by Chris Ballard.
7. Argentina Defeats Team USA in Seminfinals (2004)
Argentina defeated the U.S. on the way to capturing its first gold in 2004.
Argentina put the finishing touches on its "Golden Generation" campaign by ending the United States' own streak of gold at the 2004 Athens Games.
The semifinal matchup came with great anticipation. Argentina had beaten the U.S. in the 2002 World Championships, giving the Americans their first loss since bringing NBA players into international play in 1992. Meanwhile, Team USA was still reeling from recent losses to Puerto Rico and Lithuania.
Early foul trouble and poor 41.6-percent shooting from the field ultimately doomed the U.S once again. A Team USA with professionals on its roster would not win Olympic gold for the first time. Argentina, led by the core of Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni, Luis Scola and Fabricio Oberto, went on to win the country's first gold medal.
Team USA mustered the effort to take the bronze, but ultimately, the 2004 version of the Dream Team instead earned the title of "The Nightmare Team."
6. Cold War Rematch: USSR Defeats U.S. En Route to Capturing Gold (1988)
The Soviets defeated the U.S. to advance to the gold-medal game.
The 1988 Seoul Games semifinal matchup between the USSR and the U.S. didn’t just determine who would play for the gold—it was also the first time both countries had occupied the same court since the infamous gold-medal game at the 1972 Munich Games. Both teams were considered gold-medal contenders.
The USSR boasted a strong roster that included future NBA players Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis, but they had lost a game in pool play. Meanwhile, the U.S. glided into the semifinal matchup with a perfect record.
With the U.S. set back by Hersey Hawkins' absence due to injury and Danny Manning's early foul trouble, the Soviets led for most of the game. The U.S. made a late-game charge that closed the gap to three points with just over a minute to play, but the Soviets were able to preserve the lead and take home bragging rights just as they had 16 years earlier. Rimas Kurtinaitis led the Soviet side with 28 points in the 92-76 victory.
The USSR went on to beat Yugoslavia in the gold-medal game to reclaim the top spot on the podium for the last time in Soviet (and world) history.
5. U.S. Women Win Gold, Women's Game Steps Up in Atlanta (1996)
The 1996 women's U.S. team catapulted women's basketball into the national spotlight.
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The success of female athletes in the Atlanta Games resulted in 1996 being recognized as the “Year of the Woman.” At the forefront of this recognition was the U.S. women’s basketball team, which defeated Brazil in the gold-medal game 111-87 to finish 8-0 in Olympic competition.
Prior to the '96 games, Sports Illustrated chose to feature the U.S. women's team on the cover of its Olympic preview issue, foreshadowing the impact that the team's success would have on women’s basketball worldwide. And rightfully so—during pre-Olympic competition, the national team went 52-0 against NCAA and international opponents.
The team featured a deep and talented lineup that included Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley, players who played a more athletic and exciting brand of basketball than previously seen in the women’s game. Swoopes had her own Nike shoe, and the team’s successful Olympic campaign drummed up interest in the inaugural season of the WNBA in 1997.
4. Puerto Rico Shocks U.S. in Athens (2004)
Puerto Rico delivered one of the most shocking upsets in Olympic basketball history.
The looks on the faces of Dream Team III members during the game said it all: This isn’t happening, is it?
It was, and it did.
The unimaginable happened in Athens when Puerto Rico pulled off a stunningly convincing 92-73 win over the U.S., the Americans’ first Olympic loss since playing with professionals in competition.
Puerto Rico had only two NBA players on its roster, including then-Utah Jazz guard Carlos Arroyo, who led all scorers with 24 points. The victory was really the highlight of the '04 games for Puerto Rican squad, which finished in sixth with a record of 3-4.
The U.S. had no excuses, and perhaps no one was more livid than head coach Larry Brown.
"From day one, I thought some of these young kids had no idea what was in store for them," he said after the game. "I could tell from their looks, from their body language that they wouldn't be able to forget about individual things and come together as a team. We came out with the mentality that we had to take the first open shot on every possession. And look what happened."
The loss was just the first of three for Team USA in the Athens Games. The disappointing results forced USA Basketball hierarchy to acknowledge that the days of simply throwing a bunch of NBA players on court at random and easily breezing to victory were long gone. As then-Toronto Raptors coach Sam Mitchell told USA Today back in 2004, “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.”
3. "The Redeem Team" Wins Gold in Beijing (2008)
The gold-medal game in Beijing between the U.S. and Spain was one of the most exciting in Olympic basketball history.
LeBron James couldn't have said it any better.
"That'll probably go down as one of the greatest Olympic games ever," he told ESPN's Chris Sheridan after the U.S. closed out Spain 118-107 in the gold-medal game of the 2008 Games.
The game itself was brilliant. Both the U.S. and Spain played their highest level of basketball in an intense competition that came down to the wire. But there was something else to it as well. The result justified the additional work Team USA had put in to erase the disappointment and disarray of the 2004 Games.
Under the direction of former Phoenix Suns CEO Jerry Colangelo, the U.S. national team underwent a complete overhaul in 2005. Additionally, Colangelo found the best leader possible, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, to take on the role of head coach.
In Beijing, the changes paid off. The U.S. reached the final against Spain, a team they had beaten by more than 30 points in the prelims, with an undefeated record.
In the finale, Spain refused to be so easily defeated again. The defending world champs cut the American lead to two points with just over eight minutes to play in the game. A few minutes later, however, the U.S. capitalized in key moments. Kobe Bryant completed a four-point play down the stretch, giving the U.S. a nine-point lead. Then, with just over two minutes to play, Dwyane Wade hit a killer three to give the U.S. a seven-point lead that never faded.
After the game, Coach K pointed out the difference maker: "We played with great character in one of the great games in international basketball history. Because if we didn't have great character, we would not have been able to beat another team that had great character."
2. The Dream Team Arrives and Conquers (1992)
The 1992 Dream Team changed international basketball forever.
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The 1989 FIBA decision to allow NBA players to compete in the Olympics allowed the assembly of arguably the best team ever in sports: the 1992 Dream Team.
What a dream it was for basketball fans around the world—Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird all on the same roster. And that was just the start.
Dream Team coach Chuck Daly may have said it best when he described that traveling with the team “was like Elvis and the Beatles put together.”
The Dream Team didn’t disappoint in Barcelona. En route to winning the gold medal, the team enjoyed an average margin of victory of 43.8 points. The Dream Team also never allowed an opponent to get closer than 32 points, which didn’t happen until its 117-85 victory over Croatia in the final.
In the 18 years since the Dream Team’s Olympic run, the team's impact on the basketball world has come into focus. According to Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo, basketball everywhere has improved because of the original team.
“That was the kind of the height of where basketball was taken to another level, in my opinion, worldwide,” Colangelo told NBA.com in 2010. “The bar was raised for basketball around the world, making it more difficult for the USA to dominate the way the Dream Team did in 1992.”
1. USSR Beats U.S. in Controversial Gold-Medal Game in Munich (1972)
The 1972 gold-medal basketball game is still one of the most controversial moments in Olympic history. (Getty Images)
Against the backdrop of Cold War tension and a Games disrupted by terrorism, the 1972 gold-medal matchup in Munich between the Soviet Union and the United States did not need any more controversy.
But it got it anyway.
What everyone remembers most about that game is the confusing series of events that occurred during the last seconds of the contest.
Future NBA All-Star Doug Collins drained two free throws, even as a game horn sounded in the middle of his second shot, to put the U.S. up 50-49 with three seconds to play.
The Soviets inbounded the ball, and one of the referees, who perceived “a disturbance” at the scorer’s table, stopped the play with one second left. The Soviets complained they had tried to call a time out before Collins’ first free throw, which explained the errant horn during his shot. Three seconds were put back on the clock and play resumed. Again, the Soviets failed to score as time expired. The U.S. side rushed the floor, assuming victory.
Upon a second review, it was revealed that the referee prematurely started the inbound play before the clock had been correctly reset. This prompted yet a third replay.
This time, the USSR’s Ivan Edeshko launched a pass down the floor to Aleksander Belov, who caught the pass between U.S. players Kevin Joyce and Jim Forbes. Both Americans fell off balance, and Belov easily laid the ball in for the 51-50 win.
The U.S. team protested the outcome and to this day has never accepted the silver medals.