Team USA has expected dominance, measuring itself against perfection, the last 20 years. The addition of NBA players to the U.S. Olympic basketball program raised the bar for what basketball fans around the world can expect. For the U.S. it raised the bar to an almost impossible to achieve level of perfection.
The 1992 Dream Team, the 1996 Dream Team II, the 2000 Sydney team, the disappointing 2004 team, the 2008 Redeem Team and the 2012 "Dream" Team represent the golden age of American basketball where dominance was expected and (for the most part) delivered. This is an era where fans debate the greatness of teams against their predecessors even before a game is played. Basketball might be better around the world, but it is a mild annoyance still to many basketball fans.
It was not always this way. The U.S. dominated basketball, but had to fight for every medal. The U.S. sent its college all stars to go up against the professionals of the Soviet Union. The victories were very much a triumph of the Cold War and a tall task for young men going up against older professionals.
They still won, of course. Even when they didn't.
The episode is famous now. The 1972 U.S. Olympic team lost the gold medal thanks to a replayed final play that ended in controversy and a Soviet win. The U.S. Olympic team appealed the result, lost the appeal and refused their silver medals. Those medals still sit in a vault in Switzerland, collecting dust.
The names on that 1972 team are still probably unknown to many NBA fans of the modern age. These were college players playing before Magic Johnson and Larry Bird revived the league.
Doug Collins, a former No. 1 overall pick, is better known for his coaching than his playing. The other players on the team were college stars with solid NBA careers. But the team's moment has helped it live on.
The protest lasts to this day. The defiance over the ruling and subsequent appeal to what has turned out to be the final, official result is a sorespot for the team. But the team is still a team.
It would be easy, particularly with the end of the Cold War, to let bygones be bygones, but the1972 Olympic basketball team is still united in their defiance. And they are still a team.
Steve Aschburner of NBA.com was on hand for the team's 40th anniversary reunion and the team's unity was the most astonishing thing as the team came together to remember the triumph and disappointment of that bid for a gold medal. While some have considered conceding and ending their protest of some confusing officiating (moreso from the FIBA officials off the court rather than the referees on them), the team has to make a decision as a team if they are ever going to accept their silver medals.
That seems unlikely:
At times through the years, a player or three has wavered, thinking about mortality, about what the silver medal might mean to kids or grandkids, even about concepts such as closure and sportsmanship. But Olympic rules require that all of the U.S. players must accept the medals or none of them can.
It never has been close. Davis even has it written in his will that his heirs must never take possession of that silver medal.
When they gathered Wednesday, [Tom] McMillen – the 12-year NBA veteran who served six years in Congress (D-Md.) – pitched an idea: The ’72 team would agree with Russia and the IOC to have “dual gold” medals bestowed, with both sides then donating the medals to raise funds to aid some of the many grim Russian orphanages.
“We would give a little, the Russians would give a little and the medals would do some good,” McMillen said. “We can all go to our graves playing a basketball game and not having silver medals. Or we can still do something positive for the world. That was the debate I wanted us to have.”
Other members of the ’72 U.S. team respectfully listened to McMillen’s proposal. They teased him about still being a politician. “Dual gold?” Nope, still sounded wrong. Then they took another vote on the silvers. The jury again was unanimous: 12-0.
It was a nice thought. But one of the great controversies in basketball history is still alive and well. And still going strong.
The thing is, the team has survived. They may not have their medals and their place in basketball history may be riddled with controversy, but the team lives on. They protest and continue on together.
That does not seem to be changing. So while we debate which team is greater among the professional squads the U.S. has sent the last 20 years, it is the fight and principled stand of 1972 that continues to make an impact now and draw a team continually closer together.