An oral history of the U.S. men’s basketball team at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the subsequent restructuring of USA Basketball
Part I: 24-0
24-0. That was the Olympic record of USA Basketball from 1992 – the year of the Dream Team, when NBA players were first allowed to play internationally – through the 2000 Sydney Games. There’s not much that’s perfect in this world, but for three straight Olympics, America’s best ballers came damn close.
Led by the likes of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Jason Kidd, Team USA boasted the greatest collection of Olympians any team sport has ever known. Every four years, USA Basketball would throw together its version of the Monstars, seemingly otherworldly beings unleashed to wreak havoc on the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, basketball was growing internationally, slowly but surely churning out NBA-level talent. Players like Serbia’s Vlade Divac and Lithuania’s Arvydas Sabonis were among the first to blaze the trail, as countries around the globe were incubating talent designed to take down the mighty Americans. At some point the United States had to lose, but when?
In Sydney, the U.S. began to show cracks. In the semifinals against Lithuania, the United States eked out a two-point victory, surviving a missed last-second three-pointer by Šarūnas Jasikevičius. It was the closest Team USA had come to defeat since the Dream Team donned the stars and stripes in Barcelona. In hindsight, that moment would serve as a clear harbinger of what would happen four years later in Athens.
Jason Kidd (2000, 2008 Olympian, USA): I thought in 2000, when we played Lithuania in the semis, they had a shot to beat us.
Vince Carter (2000 Olympian, USA): It was just back-and-forth, and I think more than anything we were just thinking, “Hey, let’s keep the streak alive. We can’t lose to these guys. We don’t want to be the first.” Nobody wants to be the first, and of course it’s bound to happen, but we didn’t want to be the one so we had to kick it in gear.
Šarūnas Jasikevičius (2000-12 Olympian, Lithuania): We were a young team; nobody expected a lot of things from us in Sydney. But at the same time, in that Olympics, I think people really understood that the United States were beatable.
Carter: I played against Šarūnas in college, so I knew what he could do and what he was capable of. He was just lethal with the jump shot.
Jasikevičius: It was my coming out party. I wasn’t sure myself I was capable of things like that.
Donnie Nelson (Lithuania asst. coach 1990-2004; Dallas Mavericks general manager]: We had the USA on the ropes, and they came back and ended up beating us in a last-second situation.
Chris Sheridan (ESPN basketball reporter): It really shouldn’t have come down to a final shot by Šarūnas Jasikevičius that was well defended by Jason Kidd and just missed being the biggest upset in Olympic history.
Carter: You knew he was capable of making it and he was playing with a lot of confidence already, so it was just one of those things. We had to play great defense and just hope that he misses the shot.
Jasikevičius: I believe that shot never had a chance. We lost the game in a couple situations before. The feeling in the last minute was that we gave the game away.
Darius Songaila (2000-04, ‘12 Olympian, Lithuania): The first game [against the U.S.] we lost by nine points – I think in group play – and then two points at the end. You know [Ramunas] Siskauskas makes a couple of free throws, and we don’t turn the ball over, we get a free throw rebound, it could have gone the other way.
Rudy Tomjanovich (USA basketball head coach, 1998-2000): Coming down the stretch, it was very tight and we actually fouled a good free throw shooter, and we were down 1 when we fouled him on a three pointer. And he only made 1 of the 3.
Jasikevičius: We controlled [the game] and we had three chances to close it and we didn’t.
Kidd: We all talked about it, how we would’ve felt if we had lost. You could see the world get better.
Russ Granik (USA Basketball President, 1990-2000; NBA Deputy Commissioner 1990-2006): I was sitting there with my other NBA colleagues and they started to come up with the justifications in case we lost, and how this was good for international competition. The reality was we didn’t want to lose.
Jim Tooley (USA Basketball CEO, 2001-present): We came out ahead on that one, and then the Gold Medal Game, I think we only beat France by 10. So there were signals that the world was catching up.
Carter: The game of basketball had evolved and it had gotten better.
Carmelo Anthony, Stephon Marbury and Richard Jefferson sit on the bench during the 2004 Olympics. Credit: Getty Images
Part II: ‘The Invincibility Was Gone’
The gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world ended up closing completely at the next major international tournament. The 2002 FIBA World Championships, held in Indianapolis, saw America lose three games and finish in sixth place.
But USA Basketball’s brass was not yet scrambling for answers. The 2002 squad was considered by many to be a “B team,” comprised of borderline All-Stars and a couple young guys who had no business being on the U.S. Men’s National Team.
All was thought to be okay just a year later, when a team full of NBA superstars like Kidd, Carter and Tracy McGrady destroyed the field on the way to an easy championship in the Tournament of the Americas. Argentina center Fabricio Oberto said, “I’ve never seen such a show of highlights in my entire life.” But that 2003 team wouldn’t stick.
Craig Miller (USA Basketball Chief Media/Communications Officer, 1990-present): The plan was in 2004 to take the team we had in 2003 and just return it and play in 2004. I think only one or two of those guys ended up playing for us.
Tooley: We lost nine of the 12 players that were on that ‘03 team. There were injuries; people did not want to play because there were security concerns.
Emeka Okafor (2004 Olympian, USA): That was that time about when everybody was backing out because of security concerns. So a lot of people were either dropping out or declining.
Granik: What happened was the fear of terrorism.
Mike Breen (NBC Olympics play-by-play announcer): I brought my family, my wife and children, with me on all the Olympic Games but I did not bring them to Athens. There was real heightened tension there about the possibility of something happening.
Sheridan: This was the first Olympics after 9/11. Everybody was hearing that the Greeks don’t have their act together and it was going to be dangerous.
Richard Jefferson (2004 Olympian, USA): I was proud I was one of the guys that said yes. When it became the more popular decision to say no, I decided I wanted to go play for my country regardless of what the outcome was going to be, regardless of the amount of heat we were going to take. I wanted to be one of the guys that said yes to the opportunity when the popular decision was to say no at the time.
Sheridan: Different guys came up with different reasons that they couldn’t make it. At the end of the day, Vince Carter was gone. Ray Allen was gone. Jason Kidd was gone. Jermaine O’Neal was gone. Elton Brand was gone.1 Nine guys that had been on the 2003 qualifying team in San Juan were gone.
Tooley: We didn’t have the continuity and that’s a big word for us.
Granik: I think a lot of people sort of faulted the team that we put together, but we had to use the guys that said they would go no matter what the perceived risk might’ve been, and they should’ve been applauded for that. Instead we really had a second level team.
Sheridan: There wasn’t what you have now, a desire to play for the national team that was really overwhelming. There wasn’t a program in which guys had come up through the select team or maybe through the U-16 or the U-18 team, which is what USA Basketball has now. It was more of a “Let’s just pick the 12 best players we can and put them out there. Look we’re Team USA; we are going to be able to beat everybody.”
Stu Jackson (Chair, USA Basketball Senior Men’s National Team Committee, 2000-05): So as one dropped, you’d replace another one, and as another dropped, you’d replace another one and try to amass the best talent that you could under the hopes that being that they were the best players in the world – and they’re not only the best players, but some of the best players with the highest IQ – that they’d be able to figure it out along with the coaching staff.
Tooley: We probably should have foreseen that we were going to have several guys back out, decline, whatever. We should have then approached it holistically and said, “Okay, rather than just doing some patchwork – lose a player, replace a player – we should have looked at it a little bit more collectively.
Granik: We had less opportunity to say, “How did this team fit together and who would do better internationally?” It was more just, “Who’s a really good player that wants to do this?”
Jefferson: They asked 30 players – 30 different players – to just fill out a 13 or 14 man roster. Let’s be honest, of those 15 guys, how many of those guys were their top 15 picks? I probably wasn’t one of their top 10 picks. A lot of guys on that roster probably weren’t one of those top 10 picks.
Players on USA Basketball teams from 2002-2004
Jerry Colangelo (USA Basketball managing director, 2005-present): Some players who had committed backed out at the last minute. And then [USA Basketball] put four young players in their place: Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Amar’e Stoudemire. They were all young kids, they hadn’t earned it.
Miller: Literally a couple days before training camp we were still adding people. People see LeBron James, Carmelo and D-Wade on the roster and they’re like, “How could you lose?” You’ve got to remember those guys were 19 years old, 18 years old, first time they’d ever played internationally, in most of those cases.
Jefferson: We were, I think, to date, the youngest team put together.
Sheridan: [USA head coach] Larry Brown didn’t like the team. Larry Brown liked coaching veteran players. The oldest guy on the team was 28 years old.2
Okafor: The team kind of came together at the last minute. Everyone was trying to cater to Coach Brown’s style which is a little bit different to what they would’ve wanted. Coach Brown didn’t really like to play young guys. At all. Even I think LeBron, D-Wade and Melo didn’t play as much. We all played the least, us young guys.
Jackson: Larry Brown was consulted on the team and I can remember in some specific situations, some concerns about certain players were expressed and about their addition to the team. But, I can tell you that those additions to the team would not be made without the understanding that a coach would support the team that he was given.
“To me, it was simple: They picked the wrong coach at the time.”
Sean Ford (USA Basketball Men’s National Team Director, 2001-present): The roster was put together in conjunction with the coaches, not in spite of the coaches.
Tomjanovich: I didn’t like that system. What happened with me – I don’t know how it worked with Larry – but it was just a conference call and the coach doesn’t get a vote on the players. We had a preliminary roster and I was given like three minutes, five minutes, to talk about what I thought was needed.
Jackson: It’s up to the players and the coach to find a way to work together, to be a cohesive unit and try to prepare themselves for competition.
David Stern (NBA Commissioner, 1984-2014): I would say the thing that I remember was the coach going after players in the print media, and I don’t know whether there’s anything that records my response to that, but I remember I said to myself, “David, you probably should have kept your mouth shut.” But I did take a shot at the coach because I thought that he should stop complaining about the players and either coach or not coach.
Tooley: Listen, it was a tough circumstance. I would never want to throw a coach under the bus here and say, you know, it’s all on you.
Ford: Looking back on it, I think we thought it was a good roster and I think maybe, looking back on it, the team probably needed more preparation.
Okafor: These other teams – the European teams – they had played together for a while. They had some consistency and there was some familiarity with the style of play. We just didn’t have enough time to get it gelled.
Carmelo Anthony (2004-16 Olympian, USA): I remember it was kind of last minute. I had to go down to Jacksonville for training camp to get ready for Athens. Once we got the announcement it was quick, it was a quick turnaround. We only had like – if I could remember – maybe a week, week and a half to get ready for the Olympics back then and you just had to go.
Ford: We played a number of exhibition games but that was a group that probably could have needed preparation more.
Sheridan: I think the players on the team, and even the coaching staff, said, “Look we’re going to go through a learning curve. That’s why we set up such a demanding [exhibition] schedule. That’s why we’re going to Germany and we’re going to Serbia and we’re going to Turkey. We have to play a ton of games because we have a roster that hasn’t really played together. They’re going to have to learn together on the fly. And by the time we get to Athens we should have our act together.”
Anthony: We all got along from a standpoint of, we were competitors, we knew how to play the game, we competed against each other night in and night out for our own respective teams and we respected each other as individuals, but it just didn’t click for some reason back then.
Tooley: I felt training camp was fine. I believe we were in Cologne; I thought “Okay, this is going to be tough.” Then we go to Serbia. We play Serbia in Serbia which is a very tough place to play and we won by 20.
Sheridan: They beat [Serbia] on their home court, but something happened on that trip. Stephon Marbury came over to me and said, “You know, Coach Brown isn’t letting us play. He’s trying to make us play the ‘right way.’ He’s not letting us play, we just need to play.” That night, after that game I was having dinner with the other reporters and assistant coach [Gregg] Popovich and Coach Brown at one of the best hotels in Belgrade and we were telling them the story. And when Larry heard what Stephon had said, he got up and left. Soon after that, Pop got up and left. Then Pop came back about five minutes later and he tapped me on the shoulder and he said, “Can you tell me what Stephon said to you?” and I repeated the story. After that Larry Brown was so incensed that he went to the people running USA Basketball and said, “I want him off the team. I want Stephon Marbury off the team. Now. Put him on a plane and send him back home. Now.”
Ford: You can’t cut Olympians. Once you’re an Olympian, you’re an Olympian, you know?
Sheridan: That was really the beginning of the huge disconnect between Stephon Marbury and Larry Brown.
Stephon Marbury (2004 Olympian, USA): To me it was simple: they picked the wrong coach at the time.
Jefferson: Obviously it’s well documented the Stephon Marbury-Larry Brown situation with the Knicks, and that started with the USA team. Everybody knows about Larry Brown and Allen Iverson. So there was a lot of conflict on that team.
Larry Brown coaching at the 2004 Olympics with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Richard Jefferson in the background. Credit: Getty Images
Marbury: For me, [Brown] being the coach for the Olympics and then him becoming the Knicks coach, it’s a little different because there’s three sides to a story: there’s his side, my side and there’s the truth.
Stern: There were stories about Allen Iverson and Steph Marbury here, there and the next place. I think the team needed more control and there was nobody who was reining it in off the court – and their on-court wasn’t going so well – but I thought the coaching staff or at least the head coach Larry Brown was complaining too much.
Marbury: I really had a bad experience with Larry Brown in the Olympics. It was a team full of All-Stars and he was trying to coach the team like it was his team. Telling guys how to play the “right way,” what they should and shouldn’t do on the court, instead of just trying to win that gold medal.
Jefferson: I think Larry Brown tried to use the USA team as a tool. It was when AND1 basketball was going on. He was trying to do something for the game of basketball and trying to put out a certain style of play and a certain style of message versus us just going out there and trying to win games and trying to accomplish things. I remember in the qualifier for the Olympics, he told Jason Kidd, “Hey Jason, I know you’re really good at the fast break, but I want you to stop at the free-throw line and throw a bounce pass to one of the wings.” And you’re sitting here talking to the second all-time leading assist guy and one of the most dominant point guards of all time. Truth be told, that’s probably why nine guys decided that they didn’t want to go do the Olympics.
Miller: I think Larry did the best that he could do trying to keep everyone on the same page and get through it.
Jackson: I think the mindset was that we were concerned. It’s not only the brass of USA Basketball, but as importantly, there was concern amongst the coaches and concern amongst the players as well, that we didn’t have a cohesive functioning unit entering the Games in Greece.
Breen: It was different than any other Games because it was coming off of the 2002 World Championships where they finished sixth in Indianapolis. A lot of people could not believe it, but quite frankly it had been a slow process where the rest of the world was catching up.
Miller: The invincibility was gone thanks to 2002. All of that set up to kind of make for a perfect storm.
“I think they were trying to sell jerseys, I don’t know, more than putting a real team together. The team didn’t fit.”
Breen: You saw clearly that they just weren’t playing well together and they weren’t gelling. It was a struggle right from the get go. That first game they played, they didn’t just lose, they got hammered. They weren’t even really competitive. That was unbelievably shocking how bad they were beaten.
Jefferson: If anything was a sign of how hard we had to work, it was probably the first Puerto Rico game.
Carlos Arroyo (2004 Olympian, Puerto Rico): I mean, nobody expected us to win that game. At half, we were up 21 points, if I’m not mistaken [Editor’s note: it was actually 22, 49-27], and we were in the locker room like total silence. We were looking at each other like, “This is not happening.”
Anthony: I remember we was, at one point, we was down 40 points – almost 40 points. I look up in the stands and all the Puerto Rican flags are in the air and they banging on the sticks and they got the horns going and they just got everything going. It was one of the most embarrassing moments for myself.
Jackson: We played a team that had an emotional vested interest in the game. They wanted to beat the U.S. They played at a very high level. They played together. They played with passion. And they played for Puerto Rico.
Granik: Arroyo had an incredible performance, nobody could stop him.
Arroyo: Well, I don’t like to take away anything from their ability to play the game, but I think they were lacking a little bit of outside shooting, so we were able to take advantage of that. So we kind of played a zone and forced them to take outside shots so we could get on the break and play our game.
Jefferson: One of our struggles was that we didn’t have enough shooting.
Tooley: It was a painful experience.
Miller: Maybe they remember Vince dunking over Frederic Weis of France and maybe it appeared too easy to them until they actually got in the competition and realized, “I’m going against grown men who are veterans of international play and have no fear in playing the USA anymore.”
Anthony: The Puerto Rico game is one that to this day still touches me a little bit. You know, it kind of changed the dynamics of USA Basketball.
Arroyo: I think it changed my life. It changed my career for the best.
Jackson: Carlos was a guy that had played in the NBA, very emotional player, played very hard, he shot the ball well from the perimeter, he set up teammates. I mean, he did it all. He wasn’t an All-Star in the NBA, but he played like one that game.
Arroyo: And you know what was funny? That was our first game in the Olympics and we got a bunch of letters from the governor and fans while we were there. We wish it would have been the game that gave us the gold medal, but it wasn’t.
José Calderón (2004-16 Olympian, Spain): It was just weird, everybody was expecting, “Okay, [the U.S.] are having a bad game and that’s it.” So that was something that we weren’t expecting at all before the tournament.
Okafor: I didn’t anticipate the loss, I was disappointed by the loss, but I still had gold on my mind.
Granik: And you know, Puerto Rico wasn’t even considered a real powerhouse. They had two or three NBA players. So you knew if we lost to them, there was the possibility of more to come.
In Game 2, the United States won a close contest over the host nation Greece, 77-71. Game 3 was a 10-point victory over Australia. Then came Lithuania, the squad that almost knocked off the U.S. in the 2000 Olympics.
Jasikevičius: I thought that they would be beatable, especially after Sydney. We understood that you still have to play a great, great game against them, but I thought they had many weaknesses.
Breen: Quite honestly, going into the Games, we thought Lithuania would be a team that had a chance. It was Lithuania and Argentina. They were a tough opponent in Sydney and you knew they were going to be tough again so to me that was a game you had to worry about.
Sheridan: Basically that was a redemption game for Šarūnas Jasikevičius because he missed the three-pointer at the end of the semifinal game in Sydney that would’ve beaten the US, and he came back in this game and scored 28.
Jackson: Terrific player, and it ended up getting him a contract I think in the NBA. In 2004 he might’ve arguably been one of the top two players in the entire Olympic tournament.
Breen: Jasikevičius is not a good international player; he’s a great international player, who thrives in the biggest games.
Nelson: The international game is a very short game. It’s a 20-minute half. You blink and a half goes by. You blink again and your opponent gets on a hot streak or Jasikevičius starts hitting everything that he throws up there. Sometimes you can’t recover.
Jasikevičius: I was really feeling good about the game from the beginning.
Songaila: I guess maybe coming from a small country and just national pride of Lithuania being in that situation and representing the country, you put all those things together and I think you have enough motivation for a couple Olympics.
Jackson: Lithuania is only a country of 3 million people. The elite players in that country, it was evident to me, had played together for a very long time.
Jasikevičius: You don’t need 12 All-Stars. You need a team.
Jackson: They were highly-skilled particularly on the perimeter, and that was every player. Their bigs could play out on the floor, their guards were great pick and roll players, and we just seemingly had no answer for them offensively.
Songaila: Obviously the game against the U.S., you know, Jasikevičius hit some amazing shots; we played with a small lineup, playing high pick-and-roll with me playing as a five.
Jasikevičius: Having Timmy [Duncan] there, as great as he was all through the years, he was, for European basketball, maybe not the ideal center for the pick and roll defense.
Jackson: In the international game, our frontcourt players weren’t very adept at defending out on the floor against international players that had perimeter skills. I thought our inability to defend as a team really started to show.
Songaila: They were a bunch of guys that were just super athletes. You go down the line, you start with Dwyane Wade, Carmelo, LeBron, Stoudemire, [Carlos] Boozer, all those guys were there, but you pack in the lane, there’s only so much you can do. You make them beat you with outside shooting, with the midrange game. It wasn’t their strength at that time and it worked out for us.
Nelson: When I was coaching and trying to help them win a medal, number one I never thought in my wildest dreams would I have believed in my lifetime that we ever would’ve had the chance to win against the United States.
Jasikevičius: It was a good win, nothing else. It was a good win. I mean we didn’t take the medal. When you look over a career, the most important thing is the titles and the medals and we didn’t capitalize on that win because we lost the semifinal to Italy.
The United States would rebound in the following game, crushing an Angola team that would finish 12th in the tournament, 89-53. Finishing fourth in Group B, the U.S. was matched up with the top team in Group A, an undefeated Spain squad led by 24-year-old Pau Gasol.
Stephon Marbury erupted for a then-U.S. Olympic record 31 points, ushering the United States past Spain and on to the semifinals. Looking back, Gasol described it as probably one of the best games of Marbury’s career. With the medal round in sight, the United States was matched up against an Argentina team equipped with Manu Ginóbili and Luis Scola.
Fabricio Oberto (1996, 2000-04 Olympian, Argentina): We won that [quarterfinal] and as soon as we finished that game, I remember Nocioni going into the locker room and just yelling and kicking everything, like “We’re going to beat U.S. tomorrow!”
Jackson: Going into the Argentina game, as good as Puerto Rico played, as well as Lithuania played, at that time Argentina was one of the gold standards internationally. That was when they were at the height of their golden era in international basketball.
Oberto: We just kept playing and trying to put them in wrong positions to take [bad] shots or to make bad decisions. We can’t play just one quarter; we got to play 40 minutes and we played 40 minutes really good.
Andrés Nocioni (2004-16 Olympian, Argentina): In my mind, it was kind of that we controlled the game the whole game. We did it really well. I think USA never had the option to win the game.
Tooley: Even at halftime I still felt we had a shot. I thought we were going to come back.
Ford: I want to say that they scored on seven of the first 10 possessions [coming out of half]. Their offense was just really, really clicking. Pepe Sanchez, Scola was good, Ginóbili was good. They were just really good.
Nocioni: We tried to be tough, we tried to play hard defense, we tried to play our tempo of the game. We played a lot of zone defense. We gave them a lot of shots and we tried to have confidence that they’re going to miss, control the rebound and try to run.
Sheridan: Argentina schooled the U.S. with picks and rolls on the back-cuts, and that game wasn’t even competitive. Argentina kind of mopped the floor with them.
Jackson: We got beat by a better team. We were better individuals, but we got beat by a better team.
Breen: The game is still played at its best when five players are working together, and the United States just didn’t have enough of those moments, where Argentina it was like five guys on a string.
Jefferson: Teams with the most talent do not always win. It’s the team that plays together.
Ford: We played Argentina about as hard as we could. They were a really good team.
Jefferson: That’s B.S. We didn’t put together our best team, we didn’t put together our second best team, we didn’t put together probably one of our top-five teams. Go back and look at it, we played that exact same Argentina team in the tournament of Americas nine months before and we were up by 40 points at halftime. The exact same team. Fast forward nine months, they show up with the same team, we show up with nine different guys – some of which had never met each other – that’s a recipe for disaster.
Breen: There’s no question that they didn’t have their best team. Whether it’s Jason Kidd didn’t play, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Shaq didn’t play, Vince Carter didn’t play, Kobe didn’t play. You’re talking about the premier players in the game. The roster made all the difference – there were a lot of key guys that were out – but that takes nothing away from how well Argentina played together.
Oberto: It’s different when you get to go to the national team and build a solid unit. Like Manu [Ginóbili] sometimes was taking two shots a game and he was the happiest man. Maybe I didn’t take a shot all game and I was happy. We just enjoyed being with each other.
Luis Scola (2004-16 Olympian, Argentina): We were playing together since we were 15, 16 years old. And we moved through the ladder and we get through the stages and we end up winning the gold medal. To be honest, if you asked me or anybody around the world in ‘99 that five years after, we were going to do what we did, everybody would laugh at you.
Oberto: I don’t think even the most positive, optimistic guy would think it was going to be a gold medal.
Sean Marks (2000-04 Olympian, New Zealand; Brooklyn Nets general manager): I think its human nature that you root for the underdog a little bit. I think it was good for the sport to just see some fresh blood, some new people.
Nocioni: It was a big shock. When you see a loss with NBA players on the court, always it’s a shock. USA is the best country for basketball. They control all the world. So every time USA loses, it’s a shock for basketball and FIBA.
Anthony: I just remember losing that game on the court and just the articles that was coming out in that point in time. It was just damaging to me, to the players and to the U.S. as a whole.
Okafor: I just feel like we didn’t play our best. The gold medal was definitely well within reach and we just didn’t put our best foot forward. Not anywhere near it.
Jefferson: I met LeBron for the first time, I met Amar’e for the first time, I met D-Wade for the first time a few weeks before we were going off to the Olympics. They were meeting Larry Brown for the first time. What team, what formula does that work for? Yeah it might have worked in ‘92 with the Dream Team, but it doesn’t work in 2004 when you have the Argentinians and Spain playing every year together.
Stern: Whenever you don’t win it is a failure, but I was admiring Argentina. It was actually quite moving to see them singing and dancing, kissing. It was just basketball exuberance for a group of players who was playing together since they were 12 years old.
Manu Ginobili and Andres Nocioni embrace after beating the U.S. in the 2004 Olympic semifinal. Credit: Getty Images
Sheridan: Well the vibe was, “This is a disaster.” After the loss to Argentina in the semis, there were a lot of people within the team that said, “This has been a fiasco from day one.”
Okafor: For the Bronze Medal Game it was like, “We have to win this bronze medal.” There was no recourse. We had to walk away with at least a bronze.
Anthony: Yeah, we knew we had to get a medal. That was a goal. We had to get a medal and go from there.
The United States went on to beat Lithuania 104-96 to earn the bronze medal. The United States needed three good games in as many days; they played two. They returned home with the bronze, but more importantly, they returned home with the experience of not winning gold. The U.S. went to Athens with a flawed roster and they paid the price in gold.
Jefferson: Anything other than 100 percent complete success is a failure. A silver is a failure, a bronze is a failure.
Tooley: As tough as that whole experience was, having a medal versus no medal is a way different narrative than not medaling in the Olympic Games. Everyone expects gold, including ourselves, but we couldn’t get over that hump. Coming away with a medal was big.
Jackson: I mean it was a mild consolation, certainly, because success to us only meant winning the gold medal. But playing in the Bronze Medal Game, and winning, was some minor consolation. But not nearly did it meet our expectations.
Breen: It was nice that they bounced back because I remember them walking off the floor after the loss to Argentina and you could just see the look of devastation, like “Wow the gold medal is gone.”
Ford: That team still, to me, no one wants to talk about it, but the team deserves some credit for going through what we went through, both putting the team together, training the team, Jim Lampley calling us a huge disappointment and an embarrassment. All of that to the bronze medal is an accomplishment.
Miller: Still, we won the bronze medal, but we lost three times where we hadn’t lost three times total since the Olympics started in 1936. Each one of those players felt that weight. No one wants to be the guy that loses the streak.
Jefferson: Let’s be 100% honest, I don’t think anybody felt 100% comfortable – coaches, players, me, younger guys – with how everything went down that year, but we did our best and we fought for it.
Jackson: It was tough to see our team not play up to its capabilities, offensively and defensively, against teams that seemed to be more inspired, more galvanized, more fluid offensively. We were better than that but we weren’t showing it.
Jasikevičius: I don’t know whether it’s the fact about how they got along, but for sure they didn’t take the tournament seriously. I think they were trying to sell jerseys, I don’t know, more than putting a real team together. The team didn’t fit.
Marks: I’m not going to say they didn’t take it seriously, because they certainly did, but it’s a team sport.
Sheridan: The people in the federation were mad at the players. They were mad at the coaching staff. People on the coaching staff were mad at the federation and mad at the players. The players were kind of sick of the coaching staff. It was dysfunction all around and it was one of the reasons why things got so bad that USA Basketball said, “We have to put this in the hands of somebody who can blow it up, start all over again and get us back where we belong.”
Jefferson: You’ll get some slack for losing in the Olympics or not doing well, definitely. That’s a stain that will always stay with you because we created the game of basketball and we should be the most dominant team.
Tomjanovich: Every American is expected to win in basketball. You can’t lose, or else it’s the most terrible thing in your life. And the players aren’t going to talk about it, but it’s in the back of their minds, because nobody had lost from an NBA level up until that time.
Tooley: Whether you’re on the team or not, even if you’re not tied to USA Basketball or the NBA, you’re embarrassed as an American of how it went. We’ll never forget that.
Anthony: We knew that we kind of had to destroy and rebuild after that for USA Basketball.