The United States is the best country in Olympic basketball history. As a result, the USA is represented generously on this list.
Specifically, the greatest team assembled in sports—the Dream Team—has a lot of spots reserved on this list.
It focuses on not only one-game wonders, but also on Olympic careers put forth by different individuals and countries. This list runs the gamut of Olympic successes.
And if you’re an American, you should take great pride in it.
If you were in the Soviet Union, this would be No. 1 on the list. As an American, it is No. 50.
Any Olympic basketball list must include this game.
In it, the USA got cheated out of a gold medal, then refused to accept silver.
It was the first time in the history of the Olympics that the Americans didn’t win gold.
Uljana Semjonova dominated the 1976 Olympics.
The 7’1”, 284-pound center averaged 19 points and 12 rebounds per game for the Soviet Union women’s team.
Needless to say, they won gold.
Joe Fortenberry’s 8 points led the United States to the first Olympic basketball gold medal. Fortenberry matched Canada’s total in a 19-8 USA win in the 1936 Olympics.
It wasn’t Jesse Owens proving a point to Hitler, but it was something.
Iraq in 1948 was not a basketball powerhouse.
The Iraqis lost two different games by 100 points—125-25 to China and 120-20 to South Korea.
Needless to say, Iraq finished 0-6. They lost by an average of 80.2 points per game.
The 1992 US Olympic team was so good Christian Laettner was able to have a spot on it.
(I know what you’re thinking—Really? Twenty years later and you’re still making Christian Laettner jokes?—Yes. Yes I am.)
At the time, he was seen as the best collegiate player. In fact, history still shines positively on his college game.
The skinny college kid did not belong on the same team as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, etc. Laettner taking up one of the dozen spots goes to show this team was really, really good.
The Dream Team was special, no question about it.
The reincarnation, in 1996, was good. But that team was never on the ’92 level.
The 1996 team calling itself "Dream Team II" was in poor taste.
Dropping the moniker in 2000 was a step in the right direction.
Switching to the "Redeem Team" in 2008, however, was as lame as casting Ashton Kutcher in Two and a Half Men.
Basketball didn’t make its medal debut until 1936. In 1904, however, the new sport was adopted as an exhibition sport.
So while there was no gold medalist from St. Louis, the Games of the III Olympiad are where basketball cut its Olympic teeth.
Bob Knight coached the 1984 US Olympic team in Los Angeles. As could be expected, Knight was a gem in the media tents.
Here is the best, coming in an interview where Knight was discussing the Russians, who were absent by protest: “They can’t play defense. They couldn't have beaten some of the teams in this tournament, and if you guys don’t know that, you're not as smart as I think ... And I don’t think you’re too smart, anyway.”
Breaking the 30-point barrier is an impressive feat in the Olympics.
Butch Lee did exactly that in 1976. His 35 points came in a losing effort.
The 6’1” Lee nearly led Puerto Rico to an upset of the United States, but the USA won, 95-94.
People in the United States would have had a hard time locating Serbia and Montenegro on a globe in 1996. The team won a silver medal, although the gold medal game was never close.
Judging from the roster, one would think the team was led by Vlade Divac. Divac, however, was the team’s seventh-leading scorer with a modest 6.6 points per game.
Predrag Danilovic handled the scoring burden, putting in 13.6 a game.
In 2004, the Team USA’s dominance was thrown out the window. The team went 5-3, and squeaked by Lithuania, 104-96, in the bronze medal game.
Shawn Marion was a big reason the United States medaled in Athens.
He led the way with 22 points and six rebounds against Lithuania.
Ireland didn’t have the most competitive team of all time during the 1948 Games. But for an individual to outscore a team in the Olympics is still an incredible feat.
That’s exactly what Frenchman Andre Even did in a 73-14 France win in ’48.
Even led France with 15 points.
The air of invincibility surrounding the US national team started to disintegrate in 1996. After mauling every opponent it faced in 1992 and mugging for pictures afterward, the attitude of other countries changed in ’96.
It wasn’t just enough to pose for photos with the Americans, it was time to get serious.
That was more evident in 2000, when games became much more competitive for the USA. The US was still dominant, winning by 22 points per game. But a two-point victory over Lithuania in the semifinals proved the invincibility no longer existed.
And it was shattered when…
An arrogant USA team was shown it had lost its spot atop the mountain in the opening round of the 2004 games.
Puerto Rico—led by Carlos Arroyo’s 24 points—whooped the US, 92-73.
That was the first of three losses for the Americans in Athens.
After a disappointing third-place finish in 2004, Team USA made an immediate statement in Beijing.
In the opening round against host China, the US won, 101-70.
The NBA’s three biggest stars at the time—Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant—made sure it was known the Americans were once again the big kids on the block. They combined for 50 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and five steals.
Brazil’s offense was the stuff of legend in 1988. When the South American scorers took on China, the scoreboard operator’s finger blistered.
Brazil emerged victorious in a 130-108 game—the highest-scoring contest in Olympic history.
Estonia came away with the first official Olympic basketball win.
In the first round of the 1936 games, Estonia beat France, 34-29.
That was Estonia’s only win of the tournament.
Because of a perceived slight from Chicago Bulls GM Jerry Krause, Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan vowed to make their Olympic matchup against Croatia a living hell for Toni Kukoc.
And they did just that.
Kukoc—then seen as the best player in Europe—was held to 2-of-11 shooting against Team USA in 1992.
The soon-to-be Bull was hounded throughout the game by Pippen and Jordan as they made sure to show Krause they were far superior than the European.
In the 2004 bronze medal game, the Lithuanians caught fire from deep.
Lithuania buried 21 three-pointers to keep it close against Team USA.
Ultimately they needed a few more, as Team USA won 104-96.
In 1992, the Soviet Union reassembled itself—for the most part—for the Olympics.
For the women’s basketball team, this turned out very successful. The Unified Team won gold in women’s basketball.
The team included 12 of the 15 former Soviet countries, excluding Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Title IX came into place in 1972. In the very next Olympiad, women were given the opportunity to play basketball for medals.
The Soviet Union won the inaugural women’s basketball gold medal.
Clyde Drexler was the last player named to the Dream Team. He was also the last player other teams wanted to see on a fast break.
In this Top 10 list, you can see two different defenders just give up and get out of the way of The Glide.
(See plays No. 10—start of the video—and No. 4—the 2:52 mark.)
Keep this video fresh in your browser, we’ll be coming back to it.
We already covered the fact that Iraq was downright bad in 1948.
But outscoring an opponent six times over is downright insane.
That’s exactly what South Korea did to Iraq in group play, winning 120-20.
That same South Korea team finished 3-5, demonstrating just how bad Iraq was.
The United States beat a Drazen Petrovic-led Croatia team, 103-70, in 1992.
Michael Jordan led the way with 21 points, but offense wasn’t the story in this game.
Jordan came away with eight steals. As a team, the US came up with 32 steals.
(Interesting side note, while the United States was credited with 32 steals, Croatia somehow managed to limit its turnovers to 19.)
This didn’t happen during an Olympic year, but it paved the way for the Dream Team.
In 1989, the international governing body of basketball voted 56-13 to allow professionals to play in the Olympics. Interestingly, the United States was opposed.
On an incredibly stacked USA team, it was the "Round Mound of Rebound" Charles Barkley whose star shined brightest in Barcelona.
That was never more evident than in group play against Brazil.
Barkley led the US to a 127-83 win with 30 points, eight rebounds and four steals in one of the best individual performances ever in an Olympic game.
After two straight Olympics went to the Soviet Union, the United States women finally won the gold medal in Los Angeles in 1984.
Because of a protest, the Soviet Union did not compete in the 1984, just like the US did not compete in the 1980 Moscow games.
That left the gold medal—although very sweet—a little unfulfilled. Redemption, however, was not far away.
Brothers Pau and Marc Gasol led the Spanish team to a silver medal in Beijing in 2008.
Pau did most of the heavy lifting, averaging 19.6 and 7.0 rebounds per game. Marc chipped in as well, with 7.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game to make Marisa and Agustí a couple of proud parents.
In the recent Dream Team documentary, it’s evident the members of the 1992 USA team had a blast in Barcelona. They did so on and off the court.
This video is plenty of evidence they had fun on the court.
(Go to the 1:44 mark.)
After a while, there’s only so much you can do on the court. When you’re winning games by 40 points every night, you have to try new things.
Like Charles Barkley flipping no-look alley-oops as he’s heading out of bounds.
Yep, it really happened. And it’s proof that the Dream Team was on a whole new level.
If you like offense, the 1988 Brazil team is for you. If you like defense, that same team will drive you nuts.
Brazil averaged a whopping 113 points per game in Seoul. At the same time, Brazil gave up 101 each night.
6’9” Oscar Schmidt’s 43 points per game led the way as the Brazilians finished fifth overall, scoring 100 points in seven out of the eight games. A 102-87 loss to the United States was the only time Brazil stayed in double digits.
(FYI, Schmidt had games of 36, 44, 31, 39, 55, 46, 46 and 41 points. Two of those games were double-doubles. Incredibly, eight years later, he scored 45 points in a game with zero rebounds.)
Sixteen years after the storied cheat game in 1972, the USSR and USA played once again in the semifinals in Seoul.
This time the USSR unquestionably emerged victorious. That brought to an end the American dominance.
Shortly thereafter, however, the US was able to put its big dogs in the Olympics when FIBA decided pros were allowed in the Olympics.
Dwyane Wade came up clutch throughout the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but never more so than in the finals against Spain.
Wade scored 27 points and swiped four steals to lead the Americans to a 118-107 gold medal victory.
Coming two years on the heels of his clutch performance in the NBA Finals, Wade proved he was the clutchest of the clutch.
The United States women have won 33 games in a row.
That is unprecedented in the women’s Olympic competition. Team USA has not lost since the 1992 Olympics.
That likely won’t change in London.
In the first meeting between the two Cold War foes, the United States got the better of the Soviet Union.
They first played in Helsinki in 1952, with the United States cruising to an 86-58 victory.
Bob Kurland’s 15 points led the Americans and Bob Kenney and Clyde Lovellette scored 14 apiece.
The US beat the Soviets again in the gold medal game. This time the score was 36-25 in what amounted to a stallfest on both sides of the ball.
The United States only needed to win four games to win the first gold medal in Olympic basketball history.
Team USA beat Estonia, the Philippines, Mexico and Canada in 1936 to enter into one of the most dominant eras of modern sports.
No country other than the United States has won Olympic gold in basketball on its home turf.
The USA has done so twice.
In 1984, the Americans won in Los Angeles with a crew of amateurs led by Michael Jordan.
Then in 1996, Team USA didn’t let a bombing in Atlanta distract them from the task of winning a second straight gold medal. The Americans cruised through the Olympics en route to gold.
Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola did what Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury could not—win gold in 2004.
The Argentinians had a narrow one-point win in their opener and lost in the second game. That did not deter them, however, as they won two straight before losing to Italy in the final round of group play.
In the win-or-go-home rounds, Argentina kept winning.
A 69-64 win over Greece started it. That was followed by an 89-81 win over the US to immediately thrust Argentina into the role of the favorites.
Argentina then exacted revenge on Italy with an 84-69 win over Italy for gold. Scola led the way in the final game with 25 points and 11 rebounds.
After two consecutive Olympics played under protest, the American women finally faced the Soviets in Seoul in 1988.
The two nations faced off in the semifinals, with the United States emerging victorious, 102-88.
This finally settled a decade-long dispute over who was the better team.
The Soviets won the first two golds in women’s basketball, with the Americans not competing in 1980 because of protest.
The US won in 1984, when the USSR abstained because of protest. That left 1988 the first meeting of the two in an Olympic competition since women’s basketball’s inception in 1976.
Team USA was undefeated in the Olympics from 1936-72.
Sixty-three wins, no losses.
Think about that.
In what ended up becoming a trend, the United States demonstrated complete superiority in 1956.
The closest game was an 85-55 group play win over the Soviet Union; the most was a 101-29 win over Thailand. The US would beat the Soviet Union again in the gold medal game, 89-55.
Team USA won by an average margin of 99-46 per game on its way to gold.
Bill Russell’s 14 points per game led the way.
The 1960 Team USA—composed of entirely amateurs—put forth perhaps the most dominant Olympics of all time. That includes the 1992 Dream Team.
The 1960 US team’s closest game was a 24-point victory. The team averaged a victory margin of better than 40 points per game.
Led by Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas and Jerry West, this team was unstoppable.
It was the Dream Team before marketing decided Olympic teams needed nicknames.
In Beijing in 2008, Lisa Leslie became only the second basketball player—along with Teresa Edwards—to win four gold medals.
The difference between Leslie and Edwards is Leslie never lost.
In 32 games of Olympic competition spanned over 16 years, Leslie never once suffered defeat.
Over those four Olympiads, Leslie averaged 15.25 points and 7.53 rebounds per game.
Charles Barkley was the USA’s best player on the court in 1992.
And that’s what one is supposed to do in the Olympics, for it’s a celebration of sport—an activity designed to amuse people.
Nobody amused better in Barcelona than Sir Charles.
With the United States sitting out the 1980 games for political reasons, the Yugoslavians took advantage and claimed their first and only gold medal.
Without the US, the USSR was seen as the favorites.
The feisty Yugoslavia squad took down the Soviet Union with a 101-91 win in semifinal group play. That was followed by a narrow one-point escape over Brazil and ultimately by an 86-77 win over Italy in the gold medal game.
The United States has competed in Olympic basketball 16 times.
Sixteen times, the US has come away with a medal. Thirteen are gold, one is silver and two are bronze.
For the country where the game was invented, it makes sense there would be such dominance.
It’s hard to wrap your head around just how good the Dream Team was. The numbers tell an incredible story, but not the whole story.
Seeing opponents—other countries’ best players—asking for photos and autographs from the Americans clearly paints the picture that this group of basketball players was from a different stratosphere.
The 1992 Olympic Games were not a competition on the basketball court. Instead, they were an opportunity for the rest of the world—including the rest of the world’s finest basketball players—to get a good view of just how good American basketball really was at the time.
Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of the game of basketball, was on hand to drape gold medals around the necks of the 1936 American basketball team.
In this moment, the world was able to see the creator of a sport recognize the world’s greatest team in that sport.
This is incomprehensible for today’s world. But for post-Depression America, seeing one of its own create a game that took the world by storm put medals around the necks of the world’s greatest, it had to be a sense of immeasurable pride.
If you’ve read this far, you’ve seen this dunk before.
That doesn’t matter.
In the unlikely event you’re unfamiliar with Vince Carter’s epic dunk from the 2000 Olympics, here’s a breakdown.
(For the record, I hate the word epic. In this instance, it is necessary.)
Vince Carter steals the ball. He drives toward the basket and plants for takeoff. While he’s doing so, 7’2” French center Frédéric Weis moved in to take a charge.
What did Carter do? He elevated over Weis.
That’s right—he put his crotch over the head of a 7-footer. This wasn’t in an All-Star weekend dunk contest, either.
It was in the Olympics.
Seldom do supposed great teams live up to the hype.
The 1992 US Olympic basketball team did.
The team—assembled with NBA stars for the first time ever—made a mockery of the Olympics by going 8-0 and winning by an average margin of 117-73 each night.
This team was more athletic, more talented and more skilled than any team seen before or after.
Such dominance will never be seen on the international level again unless American football becomes an Olympic sport.