If you were alive during the announcement of the "Dream Team," you knew you were in the presence of something big. Basketball was always a huge sport in the states, but several national superstars, headed by a worldwide phenom by the name of Michael Jordan — who is arguably one of the world's most recognizable and respected athletes/public figures — wanted to give the game global attention.
The "Dream Team" set a ridiculous precedent for international play. While basketball became an "official" Olympic sport in Berlin in 1936, MJ's Dream Team really brought the game into another stratosphere when he competed in 1984 and 1992, earning gold in both of his outings. All in all, Team USA's basketball record is redoubtable with a total 15 gold medals. But the squad's opening loss at the Tokyo 2021 Olympics to France has people asking: Why are they so bad?
"Why is Team USA so bad at basketball in the Tokyo Olympics?" many fans are asking.
First, let's get something straight: As of this writing, Team USA is still in the running for a gold medal at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics games. They're maybe not as dominant as they were as the 1992 Dream Team that managed to score over 100 points every single contest. And they aren't as consistently ruthless and otherworldly looking, but they are getting it done on the court.
Team sports are highly contingent on how well a team "gels" with one another. You can get a bunch of extremely talented individuals together, but a great team is truly the sum of all its parts and how well they're able to gel. The New York Times writes, "Although still favored to win a medal, the American team is paying a price for a lack of preparation and the global surge in the game."
That lack of preparation could very well be the reason for the lack of consistency referenced by the Washington Post: "If the U.S. men’s basketball team were a car, it would have only two gears: first and sixth. If it were a thermostat, there would only be two temperature settings: 65 degrees and 82 degrees ... At these Tokyo Olympics, Team USA has been either horrid or 'holy cow,' with nothing in between."
Take USA's win over Australia: In the first half, things weren't looking so good for the squad of all-stars. Ten consecutively missed 3-pointers, fumbles, turnovers — all of these mistakes could be directly attributed to that lack of preparation. However, they were able to rally back, mostly thanks to Kevin Durant's gritty leadership and never-say-die attitude. Phoenix Suns standout Devin Booker praised Durant's perseverance.
Booker said (per the Washington Post): "[Kevin's] been in these situations before and he’s leading us as such. These games are real meaningful to him and our whole team. He’s been a great leader for us, and we feed off his energy. He didn’t have to be here [because of what] he’s done in the Olympic Games of the past."
It's also impossible to understate the flourish of international talent coming into the NBA more and more in recent years. Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose parents immigrated from Nigeria to Greece, is arguably the league's biggest star and just secured his first NBA title, and he is just one of many fantastic stars who got their start overseas.
So the rest of the world is playing basketball more and more. That's not to say that international competition hasn't always been strong — it has — but with more interest in the game outside of the US, coupled with a purported lack of preparation, it's not surprising to see Team USA not reach those dominant heights we've become so accustomed to seeing. But USA's still on track for gold, which should be the standard, as the NBA is an American organization which contains the world's best basketball players.
When did Team USA not win a gold medal in basketball?
There have only been three occasions that the USA didn't bring home gold when they participated in basketball in the Summer Olympic Games: 1972 in Munich (silver), 1988 in Seoul (bronze), and 2004 in Athens (bronze). The Munich instance was seen as extremely controversial as it was believed officials were bribed by the Russian Communist party to reverse calls and give the Russian team a chance to score a basket after the clock had run out.