Team USA and Olympic Basketball History

From Berlin 1936 to London 2012

1992 Olympics: United States National Basketball Team
Andrew D. Bernstein/Contributor/National Basketball Association

Basketball made the leap from "idea in James Naismith's head" to the international stage in a remarkably short period of time. Dr. Naismith first published the rules of the game he called "Basket Ball" in January 1892. By 1904, the game was a demonstration sport at the Olympic Games in St. Louis.

Another demonstration tournament was held at the London games in 1924.

The First Olympic Basketball Tournament: Berlin, 1936

Thanks in large part to the efforts of legendary Kansas coach Phog Allen, basketball was added to the Olympics as a medal sport in 1936. But that first Olympic basketball tournament bore very little resemblance to the game we know today - or even as it was played in gyms all over America at the time. The Olympic organizers held the games outdoors on a court made of clay and sand and used a ball that was significantly lighter (and more vulnerable to gusts of wind) than a standard basketball.

Despite all that - and a downpour that turned the court into a mud puddle during the final game, an American team comprised primarily of AAU players from Kansas and California won the gold medal, defeating Team Canada by the comically-low score of 19-8.

Worth noting: the best college basketball team of that era - the Blackbirds of Long Island University - passed up the chance to represent the United States in Berlin as a protest against Adolf Hitler's government.

Team USA's Dominance

That gold medal was the first of many for Team USA, which would go on to dominate the Olympic competition for much of the next six decades. America was represented by AAU teams and players at the 1948, 1952 and 1956 games. In 1960, college ball took over, as California's Pete Newell coached a team featuring future Hall-of-Famers Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Jerry Lucas and Walt Bellamy to the top of the medal stand.

The 1960 United States Olympic Team was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.

Team USA continued to dominate Olympic basketball through the 1964 and 1968 Games and remained undefeated in Olympic competition. It all changed in 1972.

Team USA's First Loss: The 1972 Gold Medal Game

The Americans seemed headed for yet another gold medal in 1972, cruising to the championship game against the Soviet Union in impressive fashion. But after what may have been the worst display of late-game officiating in basketball history, the USSR was atop the medal stand, and Team USA's overall Olympic record dropped to 63-1.​

Women's Hoops and Boycotts

America re-claimed the top spot in men's basketball at the 1976 games in Montreal. Women's basketball became an Olympic sport for the first time at those games; the USSR won the inaugural Olympic women's basketball tournament, which featured just six teams.

In 1980, Yugoslavia became the first team other than the United States or USSR to win men's basketball gold - of course, the American-led boycott of the Moscow games had a lot to do with that outcome. The Soviet bloc returned the boycott favor at the Los Angeles games in 1984, though it is difficult to imagine any team beating an American squad that featured future Dream Teamers and Hall-of-​Famers Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin.

The American women's team also won gold in Los Angeles.

Amateur Basketball's Last Stand

The 1988 games in Seoul, South Korea saw the end of America's reign as the undisputed kings of men's Olympic basketball. Once again, Team USA lost to the Soviets. But in '88, there was no controversial call or official's screw up. The American team - which featured future NBA stars like David Robinson, Danny Manning, and Mitch Richmond - was good. The USSR squad, which included Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis - was better. Team USA went undefeated in the preliminary round, but lost to the Soviets in the quarterfinals and finished a disappointing third.

On the women's side, Team USA won their second consecutive gold.

The Dream Team

By 1992, the international basketball landscape had changed significantly. In 1989, FIBA eliminated the distinction between amateur and professional players. That opened the door for NBA players to participate in the World Championships and the Olympics. And the breakup of the Soviet Union eliminated Team USA's biggest rival. Many of the best players from the 1988 gold medalists - including Sabonis and Marciulionis - played for Lithuania. Other former Soviet nations played under the curiously-named banner of "The Unified Team."

Free to bring the very best American ballplayers, USA Basketball assembled what many consider to be the most impressive collection of talent ever to share the hardwood. The Dream Team's twelve-man roster featured eleven future Hall-of-​Famers, with three more (Chuck Daly, Mike Krzyzewski and Lenny Wilkens) on the coaching staff. Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and the rest dominated the competition; the biggest challenge they'd face was figuring out how a bunch of Nike-sponsored athletes would appear on the medal stand wearing warmups manufactured by Reebok. (Jordan and others famously solved that problem by covering the Reebok logos with American flags.)

The World Catches Up

Some expected the addition of NBA superstars to the Olympic games to kick-start a new era of American dominance. But the world closed the gap at a surprising rate. The 1996 team won in fairly impressive fashion. The 2000 team barely squeaked into the gold medal game, beating Lithuania 85-83 in the semifinals.

The low point for Team USA came at the 2004 games in Athens, as a squad of big-name NBA stars like Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, and Stephon Marbury was blown out in their Olympic opener by lightly-regarded Puerto Rico, barely squeaked into the medal round with a fourth-place finish in the group stage, and then lost to eventual champion Argentina in the semifinals before rebounding to win bronze.

A Change in Strategy and "The Redeem Team"

It was clear that simply throwing together an all-star team a few weeks before the Olympics was no longer enough to make Team USA competitive at the highest levels of international hoops. USA Basketball revamped the men's national team, requiring that players make multi-year commitments to build continuity, and handed the reins to Duke coach (and veteran of the 1992 Dream Team) Mike Krzyzewski.

Coach K's charges placed third at the 2006 FIBA World Championships, dominated the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament, and returned to the top of the medal stand at the Beijing games in 2008.

Team USA's women's team saw no such stumble and has won every Olympic gold since 1984, with the exception of a bronze in 1992.