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Basketball 101: Olympic history

Basketball 101: Olympic history
Posted at 10:35 AM, Mar 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-16 11:27:59-04

Rio, 2016: Team USA continued its run of dominance in Rio, winning its third consecutive gold medal. After going undefeated in the group stage, the U.S. began the knockout stage with a sweet 105-78 victory over Argentina -- the team they lost to in the semifinals in 2004. After taking down a stingy Spain team in the semifinals, the U.S. cruised to a 96-66 victory over Serbia for the gold medal. Kevin Durant erupted for 30 points in the tilt while DeMarcus Cousins logged 13 points and a whopping 15 rebounds. The United States men sit comfortably with a record 15 gold medal wins since basketball was added to the Olympics.

The U.S. women captured the gold in Rio as well, expanding their gold streak to six consecutive Olympics. Like the U.S. men, the women went undefeated in the group stage, including a 103-63 blowout over Spain early on in the tournament. Just under two weeks later, the United States met Spain once again for the gold. And like their first meeting, the U.S. dominated, winning the game 101-72. Lindsay Whalen and Diana Taurasi both finished with 17 points while Taurasi went 5-for-7 from beyond the arc. Brittney Griner also stood out for the United States, logging seven rebounds in just 12:32 of time on the floor.

London, 2012: The United States men entered the London Olympics looking for their second consecutive gold medal. The U.S. swept their way through group play, including a resounding 156-73 shellacking of Nigeria. In the game, Carmelo Anthony scored U.S. Olympic record of 37 points as Team USA set the bar for most points scored in an Olympic game. After breezing by Australia in the quarterfinals, 119-86 and Argentina in the semifinals, 109-83, the Stars and Stripes advanced to the Olympic final against Spain. In the second gold medal game played in as many Olympics between the two sides, the U.S. once again stood atop the podium after defeating Spain 107-100. Kevin Durant led the way for the Red, White and Blue with 30 points and 9 rebounds, while Spain's Pau Gasol had 24 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists.

On the women's side, the United States was looking to capture its fifth straight Olympic gold medal. After sweeping group play, Team USA played Canada in the quarterfinals where they won by 43 points, 91-48. The U.S. faced their toughest test in the tournament in the semifinal game against Australia, winning by 13 - their lowest margin of victory for the entire competition. In the final, the United States routed France 86-50 behind Candace Parker's game-high 21 points and 11 rebounds.

The USA Women's basketball team wins gold
USA women's basketball earned a fifth straight gold at the 2012 Olympic Games. Credit: USA Today Sports
USA Today Sports

Beijing, 2008: Embarrassed by the disappointing bronze medal in 2004, Team USA sought a new selection process for the men's Olympic team prior to the Beijing Games. The new approach, which featured team members playing together internationally for more than just the summer of the Olympics, paid off in gold. The "Redeem Team" featured the best in the world -- Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, to name a few -- and didn't receive much of a challenge from the rest of the world until the gold-medal game against Spain. The Americans led by only four points with less than three minutes to play, but clutch 3-pointers by Bryant and Wade closed out the game, 118-107.

The U.S. women took their customary place atop the Olympic podium one day before the men, after they defeated Australia, 92-65, for the third straight time in the Olympic final. The American women were even more dominant than their male counterparts, outscoring opponents by an average of 37.6 points. Though the triumph marked the fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal for the U.S. women, it was also a redemption of sorts considering the Americans struggled to bronze at the 2006 World Championships. The eight wins in Beijing pushed the U.S. women's Olympic winning streak to 33 games.

Athens, 2004: With Team USA demonstrating considerable signs of vulnerability in Atlanta and Sydney, the Olympic basketball gold medal, once the sole property of the U.S. men's teams -- the Americans had claimed gold in 12 of the 14 previous Games they competed in between 1936 and 2000 -- was up for grabs in 2004. And Argentina snatched it away. Sparked by the play of guard Manu Ginobili, Argentina shocked Team USA, 89-81, in the semifinals and defeated Italy, 84-69, in the final for its first Olympic gold. Sparked by 22 points off the bench from Shawn Marion, the U.S. saved face with a 104-96 victory over Lithuania for the bronze, despite Lithuania hitting a record 21 3-pointers in the game.

With plentiful scoring from its starting five and across-the-board production from its deep bench, the favored Americans plowed through the tournament to capture an unprecedented third straight women's basketball gold medal and their fifth in seven Games. With Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie, each members of the last three winning teams, scoring a combined 32 points during a 74-63 victory over Australia in the final, the U.S. extended its Olympic winning streak to 25 games.

Argentina celebrates winning the gold
Argentina celebrates after winning the 2004 gold medal in Athens. Credit: Getty Images
Getty Images

Sydney, 2000: Far removed from the dominant days of Barcelona, the Dream Team in Sydney struck gold, but not fear into its opponents. Adding its usual flare (such as Vince Carter literally dunking over 7-foot Frederic Weis of France), the U.S. was surprisingly involved in several close games during the tournament. In the semifinals against Lithuania, neither team led by more than three points in the final 15 1/2 minutes. When Sarunas Jasikevicius's potential game-winning 3-pointer missed at the buzzer, the U.S. escaped with an 85-83 win. The gold-medal game against France wasn't as tight, but the Americans couldn't put away a French team few expected to reach the final. The winning margin of 10 points (85-75) is the smallest ever for the U.S. men in a gold-medal victory.

The favored Americans steam-rolled through the women's basketball tournament, making it two straight gold medals for the U.S. and four at the past five Olympics. Even the much-awaited showdown with host Australia in the final provided little drama as Team USA easily prevailed, 76-54. Co-captain Teresa Edwards earned her fifth Olympic medal, and record fourth gold. With silver, Australia enjoyed its best showing in women's basketball at the Olympics.

Atlanta, 1996: The Atlanta version of the Dream Team, like the 1992 squad, won all eight games en route to gold. But it lacked the novelty and electricity that surrounded its predecessor. It also wasn't as consistently dominant, struggling as opponents slowed the tempo. In the final, the U.S. handed Yugoslavia its only loss of the Games (95-69) to give the U.S. its 11th gold medal in 13 Olympic appearances. The U.S. proved it remained the king of basketball, but opponents were no longer content to just run up and down the court with the Dream Teamers and pose for photos afterward.

Determined to regain Olympic gold, the U.S. women's basketball team embarked on a nine-month world tour in 1995, traveling more than 100,000 miles and playing 52 games (all victories). In Atlanta, the commitment paid off, as the Americans won all eight games by an average of nearly 29 points. The U.S. defeated Brazil, 111-87, setting an Olympic record for most points in a gold-medal game. Every player on the U.S. team scored, led by Lisa Leslie, who shot 12-of-14 and finished with 29 points. In the bronze-medal game, Australia beat Ukraine, 66-56, for its first Olympic basketball medal.

Barcelona, 1992: Bronze in 1988 raised the question, "Is America's basketball stranglehold slipping?" When the IOC changed its eligibility rules -- allowing NBA players to compete at the Olympics -- the United States assembled arguably the greatest team ever. With the college player of the year, Christian Laettner of Duke, and 11 NBA All-Stars (including Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson), the Dream Team was predictably dominant, winning its eight games by an average of 43.8 points. In the opener, Charles Barkley threw an elbow to the chest of Angolan swingman Herlander Coimbra, who hit one of two free throws for his team's only point during a 46-1 U.S. run. "I'm not here to win friends," said Barkley after the 116-48 rout. In the final, Team USA trailed Croatia 25-23 halfway through the first half, but pulled away.

The United States women were favored to defend their gold, and began with three victories by an average of 45.7 points. But in the semifinals, the Unified Team pulled off one of the biggest upsets in women's Olympic basketball, shocking the U.S., 79-73. The loss snapped America's Olympic record 15-game winning streak. In the bronze-medal game, the dispirited U.S. faced Cuba -- which in preliminary action had beaten the Unified Team -- and delivered an 88-74 face-saving victory. The Unified Team downed China, 76-66, to win the gold.

Michael Jordan guards Drazen Petrovic
Michael Jordan guards Croatia's Drazen Petrovic as the rest of Team USA looks on during the gold medal game at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Credit: Richard Mackson/USA Today
Richard Mackson/USA Today

Seoul, 1988: For only the second time in 11 Olympic appearances, the U.S. failed to win gold in men's basketball. Led by Georgetown coach John Thompson, the U.S. roster in Seoul included David Robinson, Danny Manning and Hersey Hawkins. The Americans won all five round-robin games by an average of nearly 37 points, but with Hawkins sidelined, they were outplayed by the Soviets in the semifinals and lost, 82-76. The USSR gained a measure of revenge in the gold-medal game, defeating Yugoslavia. Team USA routed Australia for the bronze.

The much-anticipated clash between the two superpowers of women's basketball -- the United States and the Soviet Union -- was anticlimactic. After a surprise loss to Australia in pool play, the Soviets offered little challenge to the U.S. in the semifinals. Behind Cynthia Cooper and Katrina McClain, the Americans won 102-88, for the first U.S. team victory over the USSR in any Olympic sport since 1968. Team USA defeated Yugoslavia, 77-70, in the final. The Soviets beat China for bronze.

Los Angeles, 1984: With the USSR boycotting Los Angeles, Indiana's Bobby Knight directed one of the finest American teams to gold. After his squad -- led by Michael Jordan, Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing -- routed Spain in the final, Knight dismissed the missing Soviets. "I've been watching them [the Russians] for two years. The Russians wouldn't have won here," he said. "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." Knight added, "We'll beat their butt anywhere they want to play." The Soviets remembered those words four years later.

Without the Soviets to contend with in L.A., the U.S. women won every game by at least 28 points. Pat Summit, who competed in 1976, coached the squad led by Cheryl Miller, Lynette Woodard, Anne Donovan and Kim Mulkey. The U.S. posted an 85-55 win over South Korea in the final. China defeated Canada, 63-57, for the bronze.

Michael Jordan dunks
Michael Jordan skies for a dunk against West Germany in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Credit: USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Moscow, 1980: With the U.S. at home because of the boycott, the USSR men figured to win their second Olympic basketball title. But Yugoslavia defeated the host nation in the semifinals and then, in its third final at the past four Games, topped Italy to claim its first basketball gold medal. The Soviets won bronze. One American earned a medal in Moscow: Mike Sylvester, a guard on the Italian team who was born and raised in the U.S. but had dual citizenship after living in Italy for three years.

With their most serious challenger back home in the United States, the host Soviet Union rolled to its second consecutive gold medal in women's basketball. The USSR went 6-0, with all of its victories by at least 31 points, including a 104-73 thrashing of Bulgaria in the championship game.

Montreal, 1976: The task of restoring America's Olympic hoops supremacy fell to North Carolina coach Dean Smith, who brought four of his players -- Phil Ford, Walter Davis, Mitch Kupchak and Tom La Garde -- to Montreal. In an early-round game, Marquette's Butch Lee, playing for his native Puerto Rico, scored 35 points against Team USA, but the Americans escaped, 95-94. However, the anticipated U.S.-Soviet rematch never happened. Yugoslavia beats the USSR in the semifinals, but offered little challenge to the Adrian Dantley-led Americans in the gold-medal final.

The Soviet women entered Montreal having not lost a game in five years. As expected, it easily won the first Olympic gold awarded in women's basketball. The top Soviet was 7-foot-1, 284-pound center Uljana Semjonova, a lanky Latvian who averaged 19 points and 12 rebounds despite limited minutes. The USSR march included a 112-77 victory over Team USA, the eventual silver medalist whose roster included Nancy Lieberman, Ann Meyers and Pat Summit.

Munich, 1972: Amid chaos and controversy, the Soviet Union defeated the U.S. and became the first non-American team to win Olympic basketball gold. With three seconds left in the final, a dazed Doug Collins rose from a hard foul to sink two free throws and give Team USA a 50-49 lead. When the Soviets then failed to score, the Americans began to celebrate. But a referee claimed a timeout was called with one second remaining, and gave the USSR another possession. Again, the Soviets didn't score, but they got a third chance when R. William Jones, the secretary-general of basketball's governing body, intervened (though he had no authority to do so), claiming the clock should have gone back to three seconds before the previous possession. On try three, Sasha Belov caught a court-long pass and hit a layup as time expired, snapping the United States' 63-game winning streak in men's Olympic basketball. A protest was denied and the Americans voted unanimously to refuse their silver medals.

Mexico City, 1968: The U.S. roster for Mexico City didn't include two top college players: Lew Alcindor and Elvin Hayes. Alcindor, an early supporter of a threatened African-American boycott, said he didn't want to leave his studies, and Hayes already had signed a pro contract. In their absence, little-known 19-year-old Spencer Haywood (the youngest U.S. Olympian ever in men's basketball) combined with "Jo Jo" White to lead the Americans to gold over Yugoslavia, which had upset the Soviets, 63-62.

Tokyo, 1964: Before the 1964 Games, Soviet coach Alexander Gomelsky said, "There will be a surprise for everyone. We are fed up with second." Ten minutes into the final, the USSR actually led the U.S. 16-13. But Team USA -- which included Luke Jackson, Walt Hazzard, Larry Brown and future Hall-of-Famer and U.S. Senator Bill Bradley -- used an 18-4 spurt to pull away. Brown, who later became the 2004 U.S. Olympic coach, said of his gold medal, "It's worth $12, that's all. And you couldn't buy it away from me if you had a million."

Rome, 1960: With a squad so talented that John Havlicek made it only as an alternate, the U.S. won its fifth consecutive basketball gold medal. Nine members of Team USA in Rome -- including future Hall-of-Famers Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas and Jerry West -- went on to play in the NBA and four (Robertson, Lucas, Terry Dischinger and Walt Bellamy) earned NBA Rookie of the Year honors. The Americans beat the Soviets, 81-57, and averaged 102 points per game.

Melbourne, 1956: In hope offsetting the typical U.S. height advantage, the Soviet Union brought to Melbourne a 7-foot-3 woodcutter from Latvia named Jan Kruminsh. But Kruminsh, with little skill or mobility, was ineffective. Team USA, behind Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, won all eight of its games by at least 30 points, including an 89-55 rout of the Soviets in the final.

Helsinki, 1952: At its first Olympics, the USSR presented a potential challenge to America's hoops supremacy. But in the teams' first encounter, before a sold-out crowd, the U.S. rolled, 86-58. In the final, the Soviets deployed a stall tactic that kept the score close (17-15 at halftime). Later, when the Americans slowed the pace to preserve a 31-25 lead, a Soviet player sat on the floor in protest. The U.S. prevailed, 36-25, for its third straight gold. Fiery Uruguay, whose players repeatedly fought with opponents and officials, took bronze.

London, 1948: Excluding a 59-57 win over Argentina, the U.S. averaged a 38-point margin of victory en route to gold. Team USA boasted five players over 6-foot-5 who, as the 1948 official report noted, had "the agility of bantams," and "as soon as these giants entered the arena, opposing teams seemed to wilt and fade away." Elsewhere, Iraq twice lost by 100 points; Ireland scored only 17.5 per game; a British ref was knocked unconscious; a Chinese player dribbled through the legs of 7-foot American Bob Kurland; and a Brazilian lost his pants.

Berlin, 1936: Basketball gained medal status for Berlin, where 21 nations participated in a tournament held outside on lawn tennis courts hardened with clay and sand. Conditions for the U.S.-Canada final were poor: rain throughout, 57 degrees, slight wind. With dribbling made difficult on a muddy court, the Joe Fortenberry-led Americans prevailed in a low-scoring game, 19-8. Dr. James Naismith presented the medals.

St. Louis, 1904: Only 13 years after Dr. James Naismith invented basketball, the sport was added to the 1904 Olympics as a demonstration. The basketball court in St. Louis was laid out on a baseball diamond, where in one game, a team representing the Buffalo German Y.M.C.A. defeated a team from the Missouri Athletic Club by the score of 97-8.