As we approach the London 2012 Olympic Games, it is well worth casting our collective mind back to the recent international tournaments which have framed the battles we will soon witness. Before landing upon the most recent tournament, the 2010 FIBA World Championships, today we revisit the 2008 Olympic Games.
In so many ways, Beijing 2008 was a case of deja vu for those that witnessed the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The lead-up to the 1992 games was one of high drama, as the rule books saw a 1989 rewrite, allowing all professional players to take part in what had otherwise been regarded as an amateur sport.
Of course, this rule change came about after the controversial failure by Team USA to secure the gold medal at the 1988 Olympics -- a level of mediocrity which is simply not acceptable in USA Basketball circles. The fact that the Soviet Union won the Gold Medal Game against Yugoslavia, leaving USA to settle for Bronze, riled up feelings of angst, displeasure and ultimately renewed levels of national pride as Team USA rallied the troops to regain the gold.
As documented so well in the recent feature documentary on NBATV, the 1992 Dream Team was curated as a veritable art gallery of the greatest basketball talents available in the world at the time -- a team which is regarded as the most formidable ever to take the basketball court. The likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird headlined a team which was stirred by combined competitivism as much as a desire to regain lost pride for their nation.
Similarly, 2008 saw a return to USA nationalism in a country that had previously lost luster for the international game. This regained sense of import attached to Team USA came about after an embarrassing bronze medal finish at the 2004 Olympics, with Argentina taking out the gold and Italy the silver.
Whilst 1988 was a failure to achieve success, fueled by a case of the country not being able to put forward its best athletes, 2004 was more a case of a loss of focus. Team USA at the Athens Olympics was a collection of individualistic ballers, led by unmistakable names such as Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, Lamar Odom and Carlos Boozer. Clearly lacking the game's biggest stars (Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady), a sense of complacency and lost direction had hit the USA program. In contrast, the Argentine victors were stacked with NBA talent which was also highly cohesive as a national program.
As such, 2005 saw the appointment of Jerry Colangelo as Director of USA Basketball -- a move that proved instrumental in reinvigorating the program. Colangelo appealed to the sense of national pride in players such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony and formed what was aptly coined as the "Redeem Team".
This squad, quite possibly the most talented since that 1992 Dream Team, destroyed all in their path, including a highly competitive Spain. That Spanish squad, led by the likes of tournament leading scorer Pau Gasol, pushed Team USA through four quarters in the Gold Medal Game, ultimately resulting in a 118-107 USA victory.
By no means was victory guaranteed for Team USA -- a team reeling not only from their 2004 performance, but also from Spain taking out the 2006 FIBA World Championships in Japan. However there was a sense of urgency and drive in the Americans that had not been witnessed for half a decade, as their stars pooled their talents, seemingly putting aside club-based rivalry for the greater good.
Whilst USA and Spain were the clear heavyweights in Beijing, a very experienced Argentina was not far behind, as they managed a 6-2 record on their way to the bronze medal. Led by Luis Scola (18.9ppg) and Manu Ginobili (17.7ppg), the Argentines were always hovering in the background as the spoilers to the heavier favorites.
Once again, the 2008 games showed the increasing parity of world basketball. Despite the powerful lineup that Team USA had put forward, Spain, Argentina and Lithuania were seemingly snapping at their heels the whole way. With injuries to key USA players Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose already depleting their might, there is no doubt that head coach Mike Krzyzewski will be reminding his charges of the tight tournaments in recent international history.