Olympics

Men's Basketball: Defining moments of Team USA's dominance at the Summer Olympics

Since basketball was included in the Summer Olympics as a medal sport in 1936 with only the men's category, the USA has dominated the division.

Leading into the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which was postponed by a year to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Team USA have won 15 of a possible 18 gold medals out of 19 Olympics (more on the numbers not adding up later).

Their reign at the top began from the first Olympics, in Berlin, as they won gold for seven consecutive Olympics. Their streak was snapped in 1972 and since then, they have never been able to regain that level of dominance as the rest of the world kept catching up to them.

MORE: Team USA's all-time leading scorer in Olympics

Having said that, they have never lost two Olympics in a row but their current reign of three consecutive gold (prior to Tokyo), which they have done twice, is the most they have managed.

In the 85-year history of Men's Basketball at the Olympics, there have been a few landmark moments that have emphasized Team USA's domination. Here's a look at those.

1960 Olympics, Rome

It's a well-known fact that Team USA used to send amateur teams to the Olympics prior to 1989 and yet they dominated the competition. One such team, that is considered to be the greatest amateur squads ever assembled, is the 1960 team that was headlined by future NBA stars Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Walt Bellamy and Jerry Lucas.

The quartet, the only individual inductees into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame from the squad, were four of 10 future NBA players. The squad also boasts of four consecutive Rookie of the Year honorees and three members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players of All-Time. In 2010, the entire squad was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. Why?

That roster dominated their competition en route to the gold medal, going an unbeaten 8-0 in the competition with an average winning margin of over 40 points. Led by Robertson, five players averaged double-digit points as the team scored upwards of 100 points five teams while holding their opponents to under 60 in four of the eight contests.

Their victory was Team USA's fifth consecutive gold medal and extended their unbeaten streak at the competition to 36 games.

1988 loss sparks formation of Dream Team

The 1988 semifinal loss to the Soviet Union was the third time since 1936 that Team USA would fail to grab the gold medal. So, why was this the most significant non-gold-medal Olympics for not just Team USA but for basketball worldwide?

That's because the loss came against a USSR squad led by professionals such as Arvydas Sabonis whereas Team USA was still sending amateurs, as was the FIBA rule then.

Regarding the previous non-gold medal finishes for Team USA, the 1972 loss in the Final was controversial and could have been looked at as a one-off because Team USA bounced back to win it in 1976 and in 1980, Team USA didn't participate as part of a boycott by multiple nations.

So, the 1988 loss was undoubtedly noteworthy and that ignited FIBA, the following April (1989), to vote 56-13 in favour of allowing professionals to participate in the Olympics which led to the Team USA's iconic 1992 Dream Team.

Team USA's 12-man roster that went to Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics included 11 professional athletes from the NBA. Crossing the 100-point mark in every game, they went undefeated and helped the USA re-capture the gold medal. Head coach Chuck Daly never called a timeout as the team won their games by an average winning margin of 44 points.

The 1992 squad was elected as a unit to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010 and to FIBA Hall of Fame in 2017.

Vince Carter's dunk

After Barcelona, Team USA continued sending NBA players to the Olympics. Although, it wasn't the cream of their crop, like in 1992, but it was still enough to continue their unbeaten gold-medal dominance in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics in Atlanta and Sydney respectively.

That dominance included several innumerable highlight-reel plays but none was more iconic and memorable than Vince Carter's dunk over Fredric Weiss against France.

It came in a group game, although the two teams would later face-off in the gold-medal game as well, but it's difficult to ignore Carter's dunk when evaluating the history of Team USA, especially the men's team at the Olympics.

2004 Olympic loss

The success of the Dream Team not only helped Team USA re-capture the gold medal but also played a key role in the globalisation of the game. The world was catching up but as the years rolled by, the level of NBA talent that Team USA sent to the Olympics was declining.

Yes, the roster included three of the previous four league MVPs in Tim Duncan (2002, 03) and Allen Iverson (2001), however, Duncan was the only player from the three All-NBA Teams of 2004 on the Olympic squad. That squad was stunned in the semifinals by Argentina, who went on to win gold that year led by NBA Champion Manu Ginobili and future 10-year NBA veteran Luis Scola.

One could say this loss was coming for Team USA. Compared to 1992 and 1996, they had hobbled their way to a gold medal in 2000 and then, they lost for the first time - consisting of NBA players - at the 2002 FIBA World Cup going down to Yugoslavia in the quarterfinals.

2004 was a wake-up call. Team USA needed to do something severe to regain their top spot as the simple assembling of random NBA stars together before a tournament wasn't delivering results.

2008 Redeem Team

In 2006, USA Basketball appointed Jerry Colangelo in charge of selecting their squad and the four-time NBA Executive of the Year demanded a three-year commitment from the Team USA members from the 2006 FIBA World Championships up until the 2008 Olympics.

A bronze-medal finish at the 2006 World Championships meant Team USA had to participate in the 2007 FIBA Americas and win it to qualify for the Olympics and so they did. This time, they were better prepared.

The 2008 Olympic squad, also called the Redeem Team, was a star-studded cast including four of the five All-NBA First Teamers in LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. They dominated the group play, defeating teams like China, Angola, Greece, world champion Spain, and Germany by an average of 32.2 points.

In the knockout stages, they breezed by Australia 116-85 and then beat Argentina, who were led by a hobbled Manu Ginobili, in the Semis before meeting Spain in an epic final.

Team USA eventually won the tightly contested gold-medal game, considered among the best games in Olympics history, led by Dwyane Wade's 27 points and a clutch fourth quarter by then reigning NBA MVP Kobe Bryant.

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