That included Olympic titles in 1992, 1996 and 2000 and a FIBA World Championship in 1994 (the U.S. sent a ragtag group of non-NBA players—Trajan Langdon, Brad Miller, Wendell Alexis—and picked up the bronze in 1998 during the NBA lockout).
But ten years after Jordan and Barkley got things rolling in the right direction, the United States entrusted Baron Davis, Paul Pierce and Raef LaFrentz with that winning streak at the 2002 FIBA World Championships in Indianapolis.
After 20-point-plus wins over Algeria, Germany, China, Russia and New Zealand pulled the streak to within a win of 60, Team USA was still the heavy favorite to win the gold in front of a home crowd.
Then after a decade of unimpeded success, Team USA lost 87-80 to Argentina in a game they never even led. In the last match before the knockout stages, the Argentinians had made history.
They had also introduced Team USA to its newest—and to this point, only—true rival.
“I’m embarrassed to be on the team that took the first loss,” Pierce said after that 2002 game in Conseco Fieldhouse.
“We can still go out and win the gold medal, but we’re still ‘that’ team.”
They did not go on to win the gold medal. Instead, the United States lost their very next game 81-78 to eventual gold medalists, Yugoslavia, a team featuring Dejan Bodiroga and Peja Stojakovic.
And Pierce was right. That 2002 USA side is still ‘that’ team. ’That’ team whose failure—along with the 2004 Olympic squad—would be the catalyst for a renewed dedication to team building and systematic development within the United States Basketball program.
What’s even crazier is that 10 summers after that day in Indy, Argentina is still ‘that’ team, too. ’That’ team with Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni and Manu Ginobili. ’That’ team that still bangs with the U.S. harder than anyone, even if they’re banged up themselves.
‘That’ team, just older and more decorated.
After the Worlds debacle left Team USA broken and exposed on their own turf, Tim Duncan looked to put out the fire at the 2004 Athens Olympics. After all, losing twice at the Worlds was an unfortunate way to see a flawless run go up in smoke, but at least the wake up call hadn’t come at the Olympics.
The world stage. The granddaddy of all granddaddies of them all.
Team USA came to Athens with a 109-2 overall Olympic record when a 19-point loss to Carlos Arroyo and Puerto Rico in the opener shocked the States. Days later, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Lithuania got the best of the Americans again.
With two losses piled up already, Team USA faced their Argentine nemesis in the semifinals with a shot at vengeance.
Duncan fouled out in just 19 minutes while his San Antonio sidekick Ginobili painted an all-time Olympic masterpiece with 29 as Argentina picked up its second straight victory against the red, white and blue 89-81.
LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony were the only members of that team playing here in London.
The win put Argentina in the finals against Italy, where La Generacion Dorada (the golden generation) reached the top of the podium and wore the medals to match the moniker.
The teams met again at the 2006 World Champions in Japan, though the circumstances were not ideal for either. There was a medal on the line, but it was only bronze, a color the U.S. team didn’t want to get used to and one the Argentinians no longer associated with a successful summer.
The familiar faces of Luis Scola (19 points), Andres Nocioni (18) and Carlos Delfino (13) did their best to pick up a struggling Ginobili (10), but as their leader faltered, so did Argentina’s hold on the game.
Dwyane Wade torched Argentina for 18 of his team high 32 points in the fourth quarter and the United States won going away, 96-81.
Beijing played host to their biennial bash in 2008 as the United States looked to snatch the Olympic gold from Argentina’s neck.
After so many punch-for-punch duels in the series’ history, Chris Sheridan could only describe their Chinese tussle as ‘weird.’
This was a weird game in so many ways.
With the way the Americans stepped on the gas so hard so early, going ahead by 21 late in the first quarter and watching Ginobili leave the court in agony, it had you wondering whether the final margin would be 30, 40 or 50.
But then came an astounding lapse in focus from the Americans, who took their foot off the pedal and let Argentina climb right back into the game in the second quarter, the lead shrinking from 34-13 to 46-40, as Argentina got physical underneath and played a 2-3 zone, a 2-1-2 zone and a box-and-one zone that Team USA couldn’t solve. The Americans took 20 3-point shots and just 13 2-point shots in the first half, and things could have gotten particularly scary if the Argentines had closed the gap any further — which they should have.
Without Ginobili, Argentina lost 101-81. Anthony led the U.S. into the gold medal game with 21 points.
Four other current Team USAers were there with Anthony to send Argentina packing: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Deron Williams.
Now, after facing and beating the South Americans twice already this summer, an 86-80 win in exhibition play and a 97-126 beat down to cap off the group phase, the two teams will meet with a spot in the finals on the line.
Coach K has said publicly that he fully expects Argentina’s best blow in the semifinal. Carmelo just hopes it’s not a low blow, after Facundo Campazzo pulled a Nicolas Batum, pre-Nicolas Batum, and popped ‘Melo in the painful part of the pants in their match up earlier this week.
But the safety of ‘Melo’s groin is very much tied to the comfort of Pablo Prigioni’s; now that the old man has gotten rid of his kidney stones, the 21-year-old Campazzo shouldn’t see much playing time.
That’s because Argentina will go with their 30-year-old-plus starters (Delfino turns 30 later this month) and likely stick with them for 30 or more minutes a piece. Scola, Nocioni and Ginobili are the horses they’ve ridden since 2002 and those are likely the same ones—along with Delfino and Prigioni—that will be on the floor once 40 minutes are up in London.
Since the Dream Team tipped the scales in 1992, no team has done more to return balance to the basketball universe than these Argentinians. They showed the world how to achieve the impossible in 2002, and that it could be done twice in 2004.
But basketball stars are not a renewable resource in Argentina as they are in the United States. It is not a country afforded the luxury of scrapping a 12-man, Olympic gold medal-winning roster only to fill it with a dozen new faces that win gold at the Worlds two summers later, like Team USA did between Beijing ’08 and Istanbul ’10.
A Ginobili comes around once in a generation, a Scola about the same. Forwards as ferocious as Nocioni, point guards as poised as Prigioni and scorers as adept as Delfino are few and far between, as well.
For their primes to have coincided and even matured as one is a phenomena beyond most countries’ most farfetched dreams, and they have put on an absolute show for the entire basketball loving world.
But Ginobili and Prigioni are 35, Scola and Nocioni are 32 and Delfino is 29. Even if all five competed in Rio’s 2016 Games—which won’t happen—their average age would be almost 37.
When La Generación Dorada rides off into whatever bit of sunset they can find through London’s clouds, their lone regret will be that nobody’s there to follow them. There’s no hot young prospect for Argentina to hitch their wagon to; no new face to replace Ginobili’s as the symbol of Argentinian greatness in the imminent future.
Friday’s Olympic semifinal between the United States and Argentina will be more than just a new chapter in their beautiful rivalry; it will be the last.