On Saturday, teams representing 24 nations will play in the preliminary round of the World Basketball Championships in Turkey. The United States will face Croatia in Istanbul.
The latest incarnation of Team USA follows the recent induction of two U.S. Olympic teams into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
Earlier this month, the Hall enshrined the U.S. teams that won gold in 1960 and 1992. Walking through the exhibit, curator Matt Zeysing explained the 1960 roster was stacked with talent.
“Jerry Lucas and Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, three of the greatest players of all time, just happen to be able to, with timing and everything, get on the same Olympic team,” Zeysing said. “And so you get to 1960 and you have what might have been, or probably was, the greatest amateur team ever assembled for any country.”
The 1960 team’s average margin of victory was more than 42 points. Oscar Robertson, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame as an individual in 1979 and is now a successful businessman, said his Olympic experience stands out from all of his achievements as a player.
“To be able to play for your country and stand on the stand and receive the gold medal, it’s a very emotional experience really. But that was a special treat for me and there’s nothing that can replace that,” Robertson said.
“It happened so early in my career,” Robertson continued. “It happened before I got into the pros, we were still amateur players. Now, things have changed altogether.”
The Team USA exhibit also honors women’s Olympic basketball, which debuted in 1976. The U.S. women earned their first gold medal in 1984, the year the U.S. men won their last gold as amateurs.
These days, that 1984 men’s roster sounds like an NBA who’s who, featuring names like Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin.
Team member Jon Koncak went on to an 11-year NBA career with Atlanta and Orlando. He says he and his teammates didn’t realize then that 1984 represented the end of an era.
“You know none of those guys had signed pro contracts yet and none of them had agents because we had to maintain amateur status,” Koncak said. “Nobody had a lot of money. Nobody was driving a fancy car. And now, for a lot of those guys, it’s a lot different.”
Major changes began in 1988 during the Olympic games in Seoul, South Korea. During the television broadcast of the men’s semifinal game between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, NBC announcer Dick Enberg declared, “The world has certainly caught up with the United States in this game. No longer does the U.S. dominate as they did for so much of these Olympic Games.”
The U.S. collegiate players lost that game and eventually brought home bronze. It was the country’s worst Olympic finish in basketball. Olympic rules had prohibited NBA players from appearing in the Games, but the following year, the International Amateur Basketball Federation (FIBA) voted to change that — setting the stage for the 1992 “Dream Team.”
1984 U.S. Olympic team
“It was Beatles and the Rolling Stones all mixed into one. And it wasn’t just that it was Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. It was also the fact that in 1972 or 1952 because of where the world was, they just wouldn’t have been known the way they were,” Zeysing said. “So thanks to mass media and a culture that could accept this, they were international icons, international superstars.”
Opponents posed for pictures with U.S. players and asked for autographs. The team won its games by more than 43 points on average.
Hall of Fame player and coach Lenny Wilkens was an assistant coach for “The Dream Team.” Today, he runs a charitable foundation and works as a basketball consultant. Wilkens says the 1992 roster was so strong they never designated a starting five.
“We would start a different team every game and then at the end of the game let the guys who were playing well play,” Wilkens said. “The players bought into it. I think it probably overwhelmed a lot of people, but I think that it’s a big reason why basketball around the world really picked up.”
While every gold medal victory sparks new debate about greatest U.S. teams of all time, most observers agree that 1960 and 1992 stand out. Who would win in a head-to-head matchup? Oscar Robertson admits he’s biased.
“I think we would’ve won. I’m sure the ’92 team thought they would’ve won,” Robertson said. “But that’s what you should think.”
The current U.S. team playing in the World Championships in Turkey features a blend of NBA veterans like Chauncey Billups and Lamar Odom as well as up-and-coming players like Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose. And it’s probably safe to say if they reach the championship game on Sept. 12 and win … they’ll like their chances against teams of the past, too.