Parity has arrived on the international basketball court and the 2004 Olympic Games gold medal is literally up for grabs.
The United States , Serbia & Montenegro , Argentina , Lithuania , China and a handful of other nations all have legitimate chances of earning an Olympic medal in 2004.
That's strikingly different than the outlook for the previous three Olympics when the U.S. , featuring rosters loaded with NBA stars, was expected to run roughshod over all of its Olympic opponents.
There's no question that the 2004 Olympic men's basketball competition will be the most intense and even ever. The U.S. , which has failed to win Olympic gold just twice, last fell in an Olympic basketball contest in the medal-round semifinals of the 1988 Games when the Soviet Union stunned the USA collegians 82-76.
Since 1992, when FIBA allowed NBA players to compete in the Olympics, the USA has won 24 consecutive Olympic basketball games to extend its overall Games win-streak to 25 contests including the USA 's 1988 victory in the bronze-medal game. The Americans claimed the gold medal in the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympics Games. Overall, the U.S. men have dominated the Olympic basketball competition, claiming gold medals in 12 of the 14 Games in which it has participated, while compiling a remarkable 109‑2 win‑loss record in Olympic play for a .982 winning percentage.
But since 1992 when NBA players were made eligible, each time out the competition has gained ground. In 1992, the USA "Dream Team" won its eight games by a whopping 43.8 points a game. In '96 the margin slipped to 32.3 ppg, and in 2000 the margin of victory for the USA stood at 21.6 ppg. In fact, in 2000 the USA barely avoided seeing its Olympic win-streak halted in the semifinals when Lithuania missed a three-pointer as time expired and the USA claimed a late come-from-behind 85-83 win.
Following its shocking sixth-place finish at the 2002 FIBA World Championship, the USA returned to its winning ways last summer at the FIBA Americas Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Puerto Rico . Finishing with a spotless 10-0 record, the gold-medal showing by the U.S. insured it a slot in the 2004 Olympics. In the course of winning the Olympic Qualifier, the U.S. defeated 2004 medal favorite Argentina twice, and disposed of the rest of the teams in impressive style, winning its 10 games by an average of 30.9 ppg. With seven players from that team expected to again be in uniform for the USA in Athens , and with the addition of other NBA talents, the USA knows it still has a giant bulls-eye on its back.
The nine core group players previously named to the USA team include two-time Olympic gold medalist and 19-year NBA star Karl Malone; NBA All-Star and 2000 Olympic gold medalist Jason Kidd; Tim Duncan, the NBA's 2002 and 2003 Most Valuable Player; Allen Iverson, a perennial All-Star and the NBA's 2001 MVP; Jermaine O'Neal, a 2002, 2003 and 2004 NBA All-Star; Tracy McGrady, the NBA's scoring champion in 2002-03 and 2003-04; and LeBron James, the 2003-2004 NBA Rookie of the Year. The team's remaining roster positions will be selected by the USA Basketball Men's Senior National Team Committee at a later date.
Larry Brown, Detroit Pistons head coach and 2002 Hall of Fame inductee, is head coach of the 2004 USA Basketball Senior National Team and will draw on his recent international head coaching experiences that saw him lead USA teams in 2003 and 1999 to 10-0 record and Olympic qualifying berths. Assisting Brown on the USA bench is San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, who owns a pair of NBA crowns, and a pair of very successful collegiate head mentors in Clemson University 's (S.C.) Oliver Purnell and University of North Carolina 's Roy Williams.
In an effort to be best prepared for the intense competition expected in Athens , the USA has stepped up its training and will partake in an extremely challenging schedule. The USA men open their pre-Olympic training on July 26 at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville , and will spend the 18 days leading up to the 2004 Athens Olympics training and playing exhibition games. The USA 's schedule might be as challenging or more so than the Olympic competition. The U.S. is to meet Puerto Rico in Jacksonville on July 31, Italy (Aug. 3) and Germany (Aug. 4) in Cologne, Germany, 2002 World Champions Serbia & Montenegro in Belgrade on Aug. 6, and Turkey (Aug. 8) and China (Aug. 10) in Istanbul.
"This is the most competitive pre-event training we've ever undertaken with a Senior Men's Team," said Stu Jackson, chair of USA Basketball's Senior Men's National Team Committee. "In discussions with our coaching staff, we agreed to seek out the best competition possible prior to the Olympics, and we believe our camp and the six exhibition games will fully accomplish that goal."
The 2004 Olympic men's basketball competition takes place Aug. 15-28 and the United States men will compete in Group B with Angola , Australia , Greece , Lithuania and Puerto Rico . Group A consists of Argentina , China , Italy , New Zealand , Serbia & Montenegro and Spain .
The USA men open preliminary action in the 2004 Olympics on Aug. 15 against Puerto Rico, then will play host Greece on Aug. 17, Australia on Aug. 19, Lithuania on Aug. 21, and conclude the preliminary round facing Angola on Aug. 23. Quarterfinals play is slated for Aug. 26, with semifinals action being held on Aug. 27 and the final games to determine first through eighth places are slated for Aug. 28.
For more information on the USA Basketball Men's Senior National Team visit www.usabasketball.com .