Ranking Team USA's 5 most deflating defeats
The latest iteration of the United States' senior men's basketball team lost its quarterfinal tilt with France on Wednesday, meaning the Americans can now finish no higher than fifth at the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
The loss snapped their 58-game win streak at the two major international tournaments - the Olympics and FIBA World Cup (formerly called the World Championship) - dating back to 2004.
Of course, even for a national program that enters every tournament as the odds-on favorite, not all losses are created equal.
Here's a breakdown of Team USA's five worst defeats in the last 30 years or so. If you're still shook over the loss to the Soviet Union at the 1972 Munich Olympics, look elsewhere for your nostalgic trip through the dark ages of American basketball.
5. 1988 Olympics, Seoul
While the U.S. lacked NBA players at the 1988 Olympics, the team still boasted some household names from the collegiate circuit, many of whom went on to NBA stardom. David Robinson and Mitch Richmond ended up enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, while Dan Majerle, Danny Manning, and Hersey Hawkins each made All-Star teams at points in their NBA careers.
As Lithuania wouldn't re-establish its independence from the Soviet Union for another two years, the U.S.S.R. also boasted a pair of future Hall of Famers: 23-year-old Arvydas Sabonis and 24-year-old Sarunas Marciulionis.
The Soviets emerged with an 82-76 victory, thanks in part to a 13-point, 13-rebound game from Sabonis. It was only Team USA's second-ever loss at the Olympics following its defeat in 1972.
Writing for USA Basketball's website, Jan Hubbard dismissed the notion that the Americans' performance in Seoul directly led to the participation of NBA players in future Olympics. Still, the inclusion of professional athletes at future tournaments brought elevated expectations for the often dominant Americans.
4. 2019 World Cup, China
From the onset, it was clear this year's cohort wasn't going to feature the very best players the U.S. had to offer. The team that went to China was virtually USA Basketball's C squad.
Still, Kemba Walker is a reigning All-NBA player, Khris Middleton was an All-Star last season, and Donovan Mitchell appears primed to make a big leap during the 2019-20 campaign. Expectations may have been muted, but most pundits still pegged Team USA as a gold-medal favorite.
This French team, however, is no joke. Rudy Gobert is the NBA's two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Nic Batum and Evan Fournier have carved out long stateside careers, and although Frank Ntilikina is raw, he possesses a disruptive wingspan that can't be taught.
An 89-79 loss is still a blight for the only country in the tournament with a roster composed entirely of current NBA players. Whether this sparks an organizational overhaul or reinvigorates top-tier stars' desire to participate in future tournaments remains to be seen.
3. 2002 World Championship, Indianapolis
Team USA's collapse in Indianapolis was threefold.
The first signs of distress emerged during group play. After starting the tournament 5-0, Team USA was handed a seven-point defeat by an Argentinian team on the rise.
Rather than a wake-up call, the loss was only just the beginning. Next came an 81-78 defeat to FR Yugoslavia (featuring Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic) in the quarterfinals. Then, after briefly righting the ship against Puerto Rico in the classification round, the Americans completed their home tournament with an 81-75 loss to Spain (featuring a 22-year-old Pau Gasol, the lone NBA player among several Spaniards who had yet to make the jump from Europe).
Not only was the tournament in America's backyard, but the team featured a pair of Indiana Pacers stars in Reggie Miller and Jermaine O'Neal. Also in tow were Paul Pierce, Shawn Marion, Ben Wallace, Elton Brand, and Baron Davis.
It was the first tournament in which Team USA lost three games since NBA players were welcomed into the fold in 1992. It was not the last.
2. 2006 World Championship, Japan
Four years later in Saitama, Japan, Team USA had a fantastic opportunity to exorcise some FIBA demons. All they had to do was get through a quarterfinals match with an unassuming Greek team.
Greece won 101-95, with household names (in Athens, anyway) like Vassilis Spanoulis and Mihalis Kakiouzis outshining a star-studded roster featuring LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul, and Dwight Howard. Wade was the oldest of the six at just 24.
At this point, it had become clear that the old philosophy of simply loading up the best team on paper wasn't necessarily the right formula for fostering instant chemistry. Those seeds had already been planted two years prior.
1. 2004 Olympics, Athens
Coming off the disaster in Indianapolis, Team USA tasked Larry Brown to coach the national team with a pair of recent MVPs leading the charge.
Tim Duncan, a two-way force in the paint, served as captain, while Allen Iverson was perhaps the athlete with the most star wattage. Along with Shawn Marion and Stephon Marbury, those were the only four players on the team older than 25. At 19, LeBron was one of only five teenagers in the entire tournament. The general inexperience reared its head immediately.
Team USA opened group stage play with a 19-point loss to Puerto Rico. A second group stage loss came to Lithuania, but Team USA still advanced to the knockout round with a 3-2 record. A 102-94 win over Spain in the quarterfinals appeared to be a sign that things were finally coming together for the ill-fitting, albeit talented roster.
Then the semifinal game against Argentina happened. Although the team won the gold medal against Italy several days later, the legacy of Argentina's basketball program is mostly based on the 89-81 win over Team USA. Manu Ginobili scored 29 points against the likes of Duncan and Iverson, who shot a combined 7-of-20 from the floor for 20 points; LeBron played three minutes total; Melo didn't even make it off the bench.
Does that Argentinian core earn the mantle of "The Golden Generation" without that semifinal win in 2004? Probably not. As good as Spain has been over the past two decades, the team couldn't topple Team USA when it mattered most. Not only did USA Basketball's national program appear to implode in 2004, the loss elevated Argentina to the loftiest annals of basketball lore. That's the mark of a truly devastating defeat.
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