That One Time They Lost: On the Team USA Men's Basketball Disaster in Athens

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That One Time They Lost: On the Team USA Men's Basketball Disaster in Athens

In 1992, professional basketball players were allowed to participate in the Summer Olympics for the first time. This allowed the United States, which had finished third in 1988, to try and recruit some NBA players, the best players in the world, to come represent their country and go for gold. The story of the Dream Team does not need to be rehashed here. It was perhaps the best basketball team ever put together. They dominated their opposition and cruised to the gold even though Isaiah Thomas was kept off the team due to a general disdain for him, led by Michael Jordan.

This story isn’t about the Dream Team, though. It’s not even about the 1996 United States men’s basketball team, which also cruised to a title and included five dream team members who came back for a second go. Hell, it’s not even about the 2000 team, best remembered for Vince Carter’s dunk over Frederic Weis. (Although, when you look at that team’s roster, and see names such as Vin Baker and Shareef Abdul-Rahim, it sort of presages what was to come.) No, this is the tale of the 2004 team. The one who didn’t win gold.

By the time of the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, the birthplace of the Olympics, it was essentially considered a given that the United States would win gold in men’s basketball. Ever since NBA players had begun playing in the Olympics, the team had not only won three golds, but had not lost a single game. American NBA players were undefeated at the Olympics. There was no reason to believe anything but another gold was coming America’s way.

There was a lot of turnover on this roster, with a lot of young players making their Olympic debuts. A 19-year-old LeBron James was on the team, as were Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. Emeka Okafor was in the Christian Laettner role, a college player being asked to play alongside NBA players. This is a decision that, at the time, felt a bit odd, and, in retrospect, feels like a real mistake. To be fair, the team’s hands were tied a bit, as some players wouldn’t agree to participate. While a player like Allen Iverson is a notable player, he didn’t necessarily fit into what is needed from an Olympic team. Beyond that, team had players such as Shawn Marion, Stephon Marbury, Lamar Odom, Carlos Boozer, and Richard Jefferson. Good players, sure, even very good players. However, clearly the days of the U.S. team being so saturated with options they could leave Thomas at home were over. Other than Tim Duncan, there weren’t any generational players in their primes on this team. Four years later, a team being led by James, Anthony, and Wade would feel impressive, but they weren’t there year in 2004.

Despite all this, the United States were still the favorites. How couldn’t they be? They were invincible. They opened the tournament with a game against Puerto Rico, which is technically part of the United States. It seemed like an easy opener to let the United States ease into the tournament. Then, it ended up being the worst loss in the history of U.S. basketball. The Puerto Rico team, led by Carlos Arroyo, didn’t just beat the United States. They beat them 92-73. The 19 point differential was the biggest loss in Olympic history for the United States. The original Dream Team beat their opponents by an average score of 44 points. Despite clearly being the more talented team, the U.S. was embarrassed by a territory with little to no NBA talent on the roster.

The team would bounce back with wins over Greece and Australia, but neither of them were dominant. They may have earned a couple wins, but the fear was still there, and with good reason. The United States then lost a squeaker to Lithuania by a score of 94-90, giving them a second loss in the tournament. Fortunately, they ended the group stage with a matchup against Angola, who they took their frustrations out on in a 36-point victory. In the quarterfinals, the United States were matched up with Spain, who had won the other group by going undefeated. In the years following the disaster in 2004, Spain would emerge as the main rival for the United States in men’s basketball, but this year, Spain was everything the U.S. wasn’t. Then, in what has to be genuinely called an upset, America beat Spain 102-94, giving Spain their only loss of the tourney, but a loss that eliminated them in the quarterfinals.

In the semifinals, the United States matched up with Argentina, who would, spoiler alert, go on to win gold by beating upstart Italy in the championship game. Argentina was led by a still-in-his-prime Manu Ginobili, and had other notable names such as Luis Scola, Carlos Delfino, Andres Nocioni, and Fabricio Oberto. Duncan and Ginobili would go on to win titles together, and become part of an iconic San Antonio Spurs team. In this battle, though, Ginobili got the better of Duncan and the United States, with Argentina winning 89-81. At this point, nobody would have been surprised to see America lose the bronze medal game to Lithuania. They were a team expected to win gold, and win it handily, and here they were, having suffered three losses, playing in what amounted to a consolation game. However, to their, shall we say, credit, they avenged their earlier loss by beating Lithuania 104-96. It was small consolation. For the United States men’s basketball team, a bronze medal was a disaster. The team was ridiculed and maligned, during the tournament and afterward. This group of players, and head coach Larry Brown, will go down as the most ignominious U.S. basketball team of all-time.

This team did end up having a real impact on the state of the men’s Olympic team, though. The loss was a catalyst for U.S.A. Basketball to take a look in the mirror and reassess things. The 2008 team was christened the Redeem Team. Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd, two veterans who notably didn’t play in 2004, were on the team. James, Wade, and Melo were all veterans now ready to dominate, and they were joined by the likes of Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, and Chris Bosh. Also, Carlos Boozer was there again for some reason. It was a return to form, with the U.S. dominated the competition en route to winning the gold.

The United States has not lost a single game in the 2008 or 2012 Olympics. The 2004 team remains the only U.S. team with NBA players to lose a single game. They lost three, and they didn’t win gold. In a way, this makes them the most interesting American team, at least since the original Dream Team. While the domination is all well and good, especially for an American who is rooting for the team, it’s lacking in drama and intrigue. The 2004 team certainly had intrigue. They leave us to wonder how a team with so much talent at their disposal could get things so wrong. After a string of Dream Teams, in Athens we were treated to a nightmare.

Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.

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