The 2004 Men’s Olympic Basketball Team Was a Problem Waiting to Happen
From 1992 to 2000, the U.S. Olympic basketball team was the best in the world. It won three Olympic gold medals and claimed one of the best basketball squads ever assembled in the Michael Jordan-led Dream Team.
But in 2004, the United States sent a talented group of young players to Athens and expected to win another Olympic gold medal. That’s not exactly how it panned out.
A look at the 2004 Olympic team
The team featured a mixture of young talents and players who had spent at least a few years playing in the NBA. On paper, it seemed capable of winning a fourth straight gold medal.
Three members had just finished their rookie seasons in the Association: Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James. Emeka Okafor had just finished playing college basketball at Connecticut. Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, and Tim Duncan were among the league’s best players at the time, and Carlos Boozer, Shawn Marion, Amar’e Stoudemire, Lamar Odom, and Richard Jefferson were starting to make names for themselves.
The squad may have been youthful, but it was talented and athletic. Plus, it featured Larry Brown at head coach, coming off a title-winning season with the Detroit Pistons.
Unfortunately for the American contingent, Brown had a coaching style few players agreed with. In an interview with NBC Sports (h/t The Comeback), Jefferson alluded to some players not wanting to play on the team because Brown was the head coach.
“I really had a bad experience with Larry Brown in the Olympics,” Marbury added. “It was a team full of All-Stars, and he was trying to coach the team like it was his team. Telling guys how to play the ‘right way,’ what they should and shouldn’t do on the court, instead of just trying to win that gold medal.”
A disappointing performance at the 2004 Olympics
The 2004 Olympics did not get off to a great start for the U.S. team.
In the opener, the squad suffered a surprising upset loss to Puerto Rico, 92-73. It was the United States’ largest loss in the competition’s history, making the international basketball community aware of the team’s vulnerability. The struggles in exhibition play actually were indicative of its performance in games that counted.
The U.S. team won its next two games against Greece and Australia and then suffered another disappointing loss, this time a 94-90 defeat at the hands of Lithuania. Despite two dropped games, the U.S. still had a chance to play for the gold medal. It advanced to the semifinals but couldn’t get the job done against Argentina and had to settle for a spot in the third-place contest.
The 2004 U.S. Olympic team was a complete letdown
The U.S. team wound up settling for a bronze medal during the 2004 Olympics, which it earned by getting revenge against Lithuania.
After winning the last two Olympic golds, the third-place finish was a significant step back. The collection of young talents clearly didn’t have the same level of team chemistry that previous iterations had put on display.
Of course, it also didn’t help that one of the star players failed to coexist with the head coach. Stephon Marbury was almost sent home because he feuded with Larry Brown. The guard was fed up with the coaching tactics and how Brown sent Gregg Popovich to kick him off the team.
It was an all-around bad experience for the U.S. team in 2004, though the Americans have been able to bounce back and win each of the next four Olympic gold medals (2008, 2012, 2016, 2020).