A look into Australian basketball's forgotten gold medal heroes

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Although the Australian Boomers are yet to medal at the FIBA World Cup, Australia's junior teams have had a rich history. Our Under-17 side has picked up two silver medals from four appearances at the FIBA Under-17 World Championships - the 2012 Danté Exum-led team and the 2014 Isaac Humphries-led team both fell short at the final hurdle against the USA.

Australia's Under-19 basketball team, otherwise known as the Emus, went one better than their Under-17 counterparts in 2003. Tournament MVP Andrew Bogut led the Emus to gold that year, the last time an Australian men's basketball side won it all.

However, the 2003 Under-19 team doesn't stand alone in the history books. A perhaps lesser-known outfit led by Chris Anstey and Sam Mackinnon was victorious at the 1997 FIBA 22 & Under World Championship. Australia won the gold medal on home soil, with Melbourne hosting the 1997 edition. This achievement didn't come easily, as the Aussies faced a host of future NBA and EuroLeague stars.

Group stage hiccups

The Aussies suffered a 58-75 defeat against Turkey in their opening match. Future EuroLeague legend Mirsad Türkcan dominated the Australian big men, finishing with 18 points and 21 rebounds. This Turkish side also featured two future NBA stars in Hedo Türkoglu and Mehmet Okur. Türkoglu contributed 11 points in 32 minutes, while Okur played just four minutes.

Australia then bounced back with comfortable wins over Egypt (89-47) and Korea (81-61), before facing a red-hot Argentina team. Chris Anstey and Sam Mackinnon combined for 35 points against the Argentines, but it ultimately wasn't enough as the Aussies lost by a score of 67-81. A young Manu Ginóbili scored 14 points for Argentina, while his future San Antonio Spurs teammate Fabricio Oberto led the way with 22.

With two wins and two losses, Australia now faced Spain in the last match of the group stages. Sam Mackinnon inspired a 69-61 Aussie victory, recording 20 points and eight rebounds. This Spanish side featured future EuroLeague legend Jorge Garbajosa, who surprisingly struggled with four turnovers and 1-of-6 shooting from the field.

Championship run

In the quarter-finals, Australia bumped into the reigning champions - the United States of America.

This USA roster was nothing short of stacked, with several players that would go on to have long NBA careers - Andre Miller, Pat Garrity and Brad Miller, to name a few. Chris Anstey rose to the occasion with 22 points and 10 rebounds, as the Aussies won by a margin of 81-63. USA had no answer for the Australian defensive effort, shooting just 36.5% from the field.

Australia now faced a rematch with Argentina in the semi-finals.

Despite a 20-point effort from Emanuel Ginóbili, the boys in green and gold avenged their group stage loss. Future NBL stalwart Aaron Trahair stood out among the Aussies, scoring 16 points in the 71-68 win.

Finally, Puerto Rico awaited Australia in the gold medal match. The Puerto Ricans were worthy foes, coming into the final undefeated and with a 7-0 record.

The gold medal match initially didn't go to plan for Australia. Chris Anstey quickly picked up five fouls, logging just eight minutes for the game. In his absence however, Aaron Trahair and Sam Mackinnon stepped up, combining for 34 points. Australia ran out 88-73 winners in front of a home crowd in Melbourne.

Chris Anstey was named tournament MVP, after averaging 14.6 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Just six weeks prior, the 7-foot centre had been selected 18th in the 1997 NBA draft. Anstey's decision to represent his country in the same offseason as the draft is a testament to his commitment to the national program. Nowadays, elite prospects routinely skip such tournaments. For instance, Ben Simmons skipped the 2013 FIBA Under-19 World Championships and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Josh Green is another example, having opted out of the 2019 FIBA Under-19 Basketball World Cup.

What happened after that?

The FIBA 22 & Under World Championship was renamed the FIBA Under-21 World Championship one year later in 1998, before eventually becoming defunct in 2005.

Chris Anstey tried his luck in the NBA for three years, before returning to the NBL in 2000. He would later win two NBL MVP trophies and two finals MVP awards. Sam Mackinnon and Aaron Trahair would also go on to have long NBL careers. In a fitting end to their careers, Mackinnon and Anstey retired together as Melbourne Tigers players in 2010. The dynamic duo burst onto the scene with the South East Melbourne Magic in the mid-90s, before teaming up to win the 1997 FIBA 22 & Under World Championship and eventually retiring together in Melbourne.

A landmark achievement

The Australian Under-22 side from 1997 was the first national men's basketball team to win a gold medal at a World Championships event. This followed a near miss in 1995, when Australia picked up a silver medal at the FIBA Under-19 World Championships.

Many of the 1997 Under-22 players, including Sam Mackinnon and Aaron Trahair, were graduates from the 1995 Under-19 side. The gold medal was a function of dedication, continuity and team chemistry. This is an important lesson that applies to the current national juniors setup, where elite prospects such as Ben Simmons and Josh Green have elected not to participate in recent years.

Most younger fans would not be familiar with the gold medal heroics of 1997. Even Wikipedia has not created a page for the tournament, with only FIBA's archives retaining its results. The achievement was no mean feat however - Australia toppled future NBA and EuroLeague stars such as Manu Ginóbili, Fabricio Oberto, Hedo Türkoglu, Mehmet Okur, Andre Miller, Brad Miller and Jorge Garbajosa.

When the Boomers eventually break their duck at the World Championships or Olympics, it's important to remember those that came before. Australia's junior basketball setup has a storied history, with the Under-22 side of 1997 being the first to win that elusive gold medal.

1997 FIBA 22 and Under World Championship team - Australia

  • Brendan Mann

  • Bradley Mckinnon

  • Sam McKinnon

  • Matt Nielsen

  • Benjamin Pepper

  • Simon Dwight

  • Scott McGregor

  • Frank Drmic

  • Benjamin Melmeth

  • Aaron Trahair

  • Chris Anstey

  • Philip Doherty