Draymond Green isn’t the only NBA superstar who started recruiting immediately following a huge loss on one of the world’s biggest stages.
It was the first—and so far, the last—time the USA men’s basketball team had not won gold in the Olympics since the legendary 1992 “Dream Team” introduced NBA stars to international competition.
Athens. 2004. LeBron James. Carmelo Anthony. Tim Duncan. Allen Iverson.
The national team of Argentina, whose 2017 FIBA AmeriCup team lost a gold medal to the USA this weekend after blowing a 20-point lead in the championship game, turned that 2004 American march to gold into a now-infamous bronze-medal conquest.
Immediately after, Iverson, like a post-Game-7-loss Green, was on the phone looking for reinforcements. Who did he call? No one knows except Iverson and the recipient, as “The Answer” was looking for just that. Why was he so hell-bent on righting something that wasn’t all his fault? Because no one on that 2004 team loved playing for the red, white and blue more than he did.
“It’s an honor to be named to this team,” Iverson, now headlining the BIG3 league of former NBA stars, said in 2004, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. “It’s something that you should cherish for the rest of your life. And honestly, this is something that I will cherish even without winning a gold medal. I feel like a special basketball player to make it to a team like this.”
So why does Stephon Marbury, also on that 2004 Olympic roster, now say that team was behind, as he told Complex, the “worst 38 days of my life”?
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The teammates could barely rent their own car.
Of the 12 players selected to represent the U.S. in Athens, half were under the age of 24. Players such as James and Anthony had yet to see their 21st birthday, and collegiate star Emeka Okafor had yet to put on a professional basketball uniform. Carlos Boozer, Dwyane Wade and Amar’e Stoudemire had a combined five years of NBA service.
Duncan and Iverson were chosen captains of the squad. The two couldn’t have been more different.
Iverson, a one-man dynamo then in his eighth season in the league, had been the leader of his team since he arrived in Philly in 1996. Duncan, the prototypical big man who had already laid the foundation of becoming arguably the best of his era, was finally learning what it was like to lead. His predecessor in San Antonio, David Robinson, had retired in 2003 after the Spurs won their second championship.
While Iverson was willing to speak up when necessary, Duncan was nowhere to be found. Per Wojnarowski:
“He was never afraid to make himself front and center, even when the public unjustly wanted to make him the embodiment for the reasons they didn’t like this team, and even rooted against it. … He was willing to expose himself to the hits, the way no one else did here.”
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That willingness was Iverson’s calling card, and the Olympics were an opportunity for the legendary shoot-first point guard to show a different side of himself while riding the winning wave of glory. Instead, the likes of Iverson, Marbury and Richard Jefferson ended up being the unlikely members of the band who went down with the flawed ship.
There were a number of reasons no one wanted on, none more significant than 9/11.
Mike Bibby and Tracy McGrady cited security issues as reasons they wouldn’t go to Greece, as reports surfaced of security concerns amid rising fears of possible terrorism during the games. (USA Basketball would eventually settle on staying on the luxurious ship named Queen Mary 2.)
That tension meant a realignment of priorities, and what was usually deemed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity now felt like something less cool and not so worth the time and investment.
Guys like Vince Carter (got married), Kevin Garnett (married), McGrady (planning to get married), Ray Allen (pregnant fiancee) and Jason Kidd (microfracture surgery) were no longer considerations for the roster. Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal and Ben Wallace were all wiped out from an exhaustive run in the NBA playoffs that season. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant’s trial for sexual assault was ongoing.
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The 2004 USA Olympic team will forever be marked as the one that brought home bronze instead of gold, but it also holds the recognition of being the youngest American side in Olympic history (the average age of the team was just 23.5) that fielded a team of professionals.
By comparison, head coach Larry Brown was 63 years old and coming off winning an NBA championship with veteran Detroit Pistons players willing to acquiesce to what some would consider a conservative and throwback style of basketball. That coaching approach led others to believe the real reason Team USA’s best players stayed home was because of Brown.
From Jefferson, via NBC Sports’ Bill Leopold and Ben Teitelbaum:
“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.”
No one felt this rigidity more than Marbury. The Coney Island native shared a sentiment with then-ESPN reporter Chris Sheridan that had been echoed by both Jefferson and Anthony. “You know, Coach Brown isn’t letting us play,” Marbury said, per NBC Sports. “He’s trying to make us play the ‘right way.’ He’s not letting us play. We just need to play.”
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When Sheridan relayed the information to assistant coach Gregg Popovich, the Spurs’ head man played telephone and passed the details back to Brown.
Marbury would go on to lead the team in assists, with just 3.4 per game.
The United States would go 5-3 in the 2004 Olympics, starting with a stunning 19-point upset by Puerto Rico in the opening game that would put Carlos Arroyo on the map. Lithuania would give Team USA its second loss in a 94-90 triumph, and the golden generation of Argentina took full form in the semifinal by throttling the United States 89-81 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.
The stark reality of Team USA was that throwing a random assortment of basketball players with a “name” head coach into a situation they were wholly unprepared for didn’t work. Sure, the international game was catching up. Yes, more international players were being drafted into the NBA. Of course, this was at best the nation’s D-Team that was sent to Athens.
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Team USA came back with its bronze medal and cleaned house. In the summer of 2005, Jerry Colangelo was named director of USA Basketball. He hired Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski to be the head coach of the Olympic team, and in 2008 the “Redeem Team” captured gold in Beijing. Four players from 2004 in Athens made it onto the 2008 team: James, Wade, Anthony and Boozer.
The Answer wasn’t there.
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When news got out that Iverson wouldn’t be invited to try out for the 2008 Olympic team, he took the high road.
“I think it’s time to just leave that alone and let them go ahead and try to accomplish what they need to accomplish,” Iverson told the Philadelphia Inquirer (h/t David Teel of the Daily Press). “I don’t have anything negative to say about [Colangelo]. I don’t have anything negative to say about the situation.”
In the three games after the news broke, Iverson averaged 40 points and 10 assists while shooting 58 percent from the field and playing over 45 minutes a game.
Imagine Draymond Green playing in Oakland, after setting the table for Kevin Durant to help avenge the embarrassing 2016 Finals loss…then not getting to be part of the Warriors in 2017.
There’s nothing better than a redemption story, but Iverson’s search for his Olympic redo never came. Yet, for as vivid an image as it was to see LeBron, Wade and Kobe scrap their way to an incredible win over Spain in 2008 in the best gold-medal basketball game of all time, it would’ve been fun to see Iverson with his peer group, wearing the stars and stripes on his chest.
Instead, Team USA made players like Iverson and Marbury their sacrificial lambs, while the shoddy leadership from the coaches and organization at large have largely been spared the blame they deserve. Changes were made, and Team USA hasn’t lost a basketball game in the Olympics since 2004.
Thank you to Iverson for being the answer.