Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about basketball and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the basketball urban legends featured so far.
BASKETBALL URBAN LEGEND: The United States voted against sending National Basketball Association players to the 1992 Olympics.
From the first Men’s Basketball tournament in the Summer Olympics in 1936, where the United States won a thrilling, high-scoring 18-9 victory over Canada (okay, maybe not thrilling or high scoring) to claim the Gold Medal, the United States has dominated the sport of Men’s Basketball. From 1936 through 1984, a span of eleven Olympic Games, the United States only failed to win the Gold Medal twice. Once in the highly controversial (I mean highly controversial) 1972 Gold Medal Game against the Soviet Union and once in 1980 (when the United States boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympics). So really, in the first eleven Olympic Men’s Basketball tournaments, the United States did not suffer a single clean loss. They were the dominant force in men’s basketball in the world. That changed in 1988, when the amateur-led team from the United States (featuring future NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson and future NBA All-Stars Dan Majerle, Danny Manning and Mitch Richmond) lost to the Soviet Union basketball team, which consisted of professional basketball players, including future NBA players Šarūnas Marčiulionis and Arvydas Sabonis. The 24-year-old Sabonis was one of the best players in the world at the time (and had already been named European Player of the Year three times by the time the 1988 Olympics rolled around).
Before the tournament even finished (but after the United States had been eliminated from Gold Medal contention), the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) had decided to hold a vote in early 1989 to re-visit the subject of whether players from the National Basketball Association (NBA) should be allowed to participate in future international games. Obviously, the vote passed and the “Dream Team” was born, and they dominated the next three Olympics (plus the 1994 FIBA World Championships) before they, too, fell short at the 2004 Olympics and the 2002 and 2006 World Championships (the 1998 team lost, too, but it had no professional players on it due to the then-current NBA labor dispute). A re-vamped USA Basketball team dominated the 2008 Olympics, the 2010 World Championships and the 2012 Olympics. Clearly, though, the rest of the world has closed whatever gap existed in 1992 (as shown by the Gold Medal games in 2008 and 2012, where Spain hung very tough with Team USA).
History remembers the situation as the United States being angered/embarrassed over losing the 1988 Olympics and deciding to fix the situation by sending their best to take care of things in 1992. But is that actually what happened?
As it turns out, the biggest advocate behind the involvement of NBA players was not the United States at all, but rather Borislav Stanković, Secretary General of FIBA from 1976 through 2002. If you were to sum up Stanković’s personal view on sports, I believe it would be “the best should compete against the best.” This is why he pushed for professional players to be allowed to play in FIBA international tournaments, and by 1986 the NBA was the only professional league where its players could not play in FIBA international tournaments. Similarly, Stanković was an early advocate of European players playing in the NBA. The Serbian Stanković pushed his fellow countrymen to try to make it in the NBA.
But his main goal (his “white whale,” if you would) was getting NBA players into FIBA international competitions.
Awhile back, he reflected on his main two reasons for pushing for the idea so much:
Our competition was closed to the NBA players, but no one else. That seems immoral. The second is very simple. Our feeling is that only by playing with the best players in the world can everyone else make progress. If you are from another country and you can run a race against Carl Lewis, maybe you don’t have a chance. But you still want to run.
Surprisingly enough, the first vote on such a change happened before the 1988 Olympics! You see, the U.S. amateur teams were already having a little trouble in the years leading up to the 1988 Olympics. No basketball observers felt that the United States would just roll over their competition (especially as the 1984 Olympic victory was at least somewhat a by-product of the Soviets boycotting the Los Angeles Olympics- although, to be honest, the 1984 team was pretty stacked with Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, Chris Mullin and Sam Perkins, so it might very well have defeated a team of professionals from the Soviet Union). In any event, Stanković nearly pushed his plan through in 1986, but the final vote was 31-27 against the idea (with 18 or 19 countries abstaining). Interestingly enough, though, one of the votes against the idea was from the United States!
Stanković was not deterred. At the time, he noted:
It is nonsense to have 200 million players in the world as FIBA members but not the 300 best players. Today it is a fact the U.S. professionals are much stronger, but only by playing with stronger teams can the rest of the world improve.
So, with the 1988 U.S. loss as his rallying cry, Stanković tried again in 1989 and this time, he succeeded (despite the Soviet Union, who also voted against the plan in 1986, trying to work in a stipulation that only two NBA players could play on any one team – imagine the competition if such a rule passed? Who would the U.S. have sent in each of the past five Olympics?). The NBA would join FIBA and NBA players would compete in the 1992 Olympics. Once again, though, the United States voted against the idea!!
So when history says that the United States was so irked over losing the 1988 Olympics that they had the rules changed to allow them to send players to the 1992 Olympics, it is mistaken. Well, at least they did not vote for the measure (for all I know they secretly did hope that the measure would pass but did not wish to publicly support it).
The legend is…
Thanks to Phil Hersh and the official USA Basketball website for the information!
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