The rest of the world is advancing in basketball with mighty strides and the American margin of superiority keeps shrinking…
--Arthur Daley, The New York Times
October, 12, 1964
Nearly 57 years on, the narrative endures. On Sunday night (Sunday morning in U.S.), in an empty gymnasium in the same city where Daley banged out his lede on a manual typewriter, the United States lost an Olympic basketball game -- beaten by France, 83-76, in the first game of Group A play. As a practical matter, the defeat was harmless: Team USA can – and most likely will – advance to the quarterfinals with wins this week over Iran and the Czech Republic. On a more ethereal level, the loss sent shivers, and in its aftermath, U.S. coach Gregg Popovich spoke in much the same language that Daley wrote.
“I don’t understand the word `surprised,”’ said Popovich, after his first Olympic game as U.S. head coach. “That sort of disses the French team, so to speak, as if we’re supposed to beat them by 30 or something. That’s a hell of a team. With a great coaching staff and NBA players and other talented players playing in Europe who’ve been together for a long time. I think that’s a little bit of hubris, as if you think the Americans are supposed to just roll out the ball and win.”
Those 57 years ago, Olympic basketball was a very different proposition. The Games were still conducted under the already quivering premise of Capital-A Amateurism, hence the U.S. roster was comprised of college and AAU players. Nevertheless, the best college players had long been plenty good enough to dominate Olympic competition. Four years earlier, the U.S. had won its sixth consecutive gold medal with a team that included nine future NBA players and four future Hall of Famers: Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Jerry Lucas and Walt Bellamy. That team’s closest game was an 81-57 win over the Soviet Union in the quarterfinals; they won the gold medal over Brazil, 90-63. The hubris of which Popovich speaks was built on a foundation decades old.
But in ’64, in those last Tokyo Olympics, there was change in the air. The team was plenty good, led by Bill Bradley, Lucious Jackson and Walt Hazzard. It was not as good as the ’60 team, with a smaller margin for error (keep that phrase in mind). The games were closer: A 15-point win over Peru and an eight-point win over Yugoslavia in group play and finally, on Oct. 23, a 14-point win over the Soviet Union in the gold medal game. The Soviets led by three points deep into the first half, before the U.S. pulled away. Media accounts of the game reflected a shifting paradigm. From the UPI wire service story: “Rocked back on their heels by the Russians in the first half, Uncle Sam’s stunned basketball forces suddenly rallied….” (It’s fair to suggest that reporting on these U.S. – U.S.S.R. games was also duly shaded by the same Cold War senses that influenced many aspects of daily life).
Seeds were planted that would grow slowly. Four years later in Mexico City, the U.S. won its eighth consecutive gold medal and stretched its unbeaten streak to 46 games. The Games were ever closer: A five-point win over Puerto Rico, 12 points over Brazil and two, hard-fought 15-point wins over Yugoslavia, including the gold medal game. Four years later the dominance ended in the historic 50-49 loss to the Soviet Union in Munich. The finish of that game remains hugely controversial to this day, but the underlying truth remains: It was anybody’s game.
In the years since, U.S. Olympic Teams have been alternately dominant and desultory. The amateur teams in ’76 and ’84 were sensational and restorative. Relief. The last amateur team, in ’88, was beaten by the last Soviet Union team, in the semifinals, and won only the bronze medal. Panic. The Dream Team of ’92 was overwhelming, and begat golds in ’96 and 2000. Relief. The 2004 team lost three games and took home another bronze. Panic. The Redeem Team’s gold in 2008 was followed by golds in 2012 and ’16. Relief. Relief. Relief.
But it is never enough, because the narrative is elastic. U.S. Olympic basketball is forever the Soviet hockey team of the 1970s, which so stunningly lost the Miracle On Ice to the U.S. in Lake Placid: The team that should never lose. And with access to the NBA’s vast well of talent, it probably should not. But that is where things become complex, and on Sunday that complexity played out on the floor.
Team USA was hurriedly assembled during the postseason of an NBA season that finished only last week. Three members of the team – Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton of the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks, and Devin Booker of the runner-up Phoenix Suns – played in the deciding Game Six last Tuesday before joining their Olympic teammates. This was after Kevin Love backed out for personal reasons and Bradley Beal tested positive for Covid-19 and was left behind.
Hence, Popovich is working with a team that is very long on talent and very short on rest and cohesion. “They are better individually, but they can be beaten as a team,” said Evan Fournier of France, a nine-year NBA veteran who scored 28 points in Sunday’s win over the U.S. His teammate, Moustapha Fall, said of the U.S., “They need to work on their chemistry.” (Draymond Green countered: “We haven’t been together long, but we’ve been together long enough to have that consistency.”)
The margin for error – that telling phrase again -- continues to shrink; the world is full of good players and good teams, spawned in many ways by the NBA’s own global outreach and expansion. It’s been true for a long time, but evolves. The French team that won Sunday had not only Fournier, but two-time NBA All-Star Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz and forward Nicolas Batum of the Los Angeles Clippers, a 13-year NBA veteran who made a critical three-pointer late in the game (as did Fournier). All of them have experience playing for the French national team, and by any measure more experience playing together than the U.S. players.
There were signs before Tokyo: Team USA lost exhibition games to Nigeria (with three NBA players) and Australia. Those defeats were quickly shrugged off as meaningless, but loom more ominously now. Yet: The U.S. still has a glittering roster: Kevin Durant (foul trouble Sunday), Damian Lillard, Jason Tatum. Holiday, fresh off the plane, was terrific Sunday. They remain gold favorites, but now they are playing from behind and trying to build greatness on the fly.
It is an old story, refreshed.