Medal Or Bust: Reliving Sydney 2000

Luc Longley had an idea.

The Boomers had a dream, and Australia’s starting center wanted to crystallise that collective aspiration in a tangible way.

“Luc had a lot of different ideas,” remarked Mark Bradtke, another big man stalwart who had been a part of the Boomers program since 1987.

As the squad prepared for the Sydney 2000 Olympic tournament, Longley ordered in some customised T-shirts that had the letters M-O-B emblazoned across the front.

“Everyone thought, oh it’s a “mob’, a mob of kangaroos with the Boomers,” recalled Andrew Gaze, Australia’s greatest ever basketball player, and captain of the Sydney 2000 Boomers squad.

“Internally, it was: ‘Medal, or bust’. We felt like we had to win a medal or we hadn’t achieved our goals. There was great expectation amongst the group that we could win a medal.”

“He wanted to try and make that a focus and target,” explained Bradtke. “We wanted to try and achieve as much as we could. You always want to try and get that medal.”

Much like the current Boomers, who are determined to medal in Rio, that Sydney 2000 squad had equally high hopes for an Olympic medal. That team had developed a culture of success from years of international competitiveness against the traditional powers of basketball. Australia had always punched above its weight; with the Olympics on its home court, it was an advantage that needed to be capitalised upon.

The Boomers had every reason to believe that the country’s first ever medal in men’s basketball competition was within their grasp. They had solidified their status as an emerging basketball power, following strong finishes in the preceding Games. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the Boomers had shocked the world with a fourth place finish. A highly respectable sixth place finish followed at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Ultimately, it was the verve and confidence with which they performed at Atlanta, in 1996, that would fortify the self-belief that this team was destined for greatness. The 2000 squad was supposed to build from those successes and finally capture that elusive medal.

“Our goal was to win a medal,” said Gaze.

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Confidence within the team was sky-high, and they approached the 2000 Games with immense optimism. In some ways, that Olympic tournament represented a capstone of Australian sentimentality towards basketball – a crescendo built up from the success of nineties basketball fandom, one that would form a tidal wave of home support in Sydney.

“I think back then, when you talk about that self-confidence, I think there was a great belief amongst the group about what we were capable of doing,” said Gaze. “And certainly, with the individuals involved, there was a high degree of confidence in their own abilities.”

No backward step

According to Bradtke, Barry Barnes, the legendary Boomers coach, cultivated a culture of toughness and self-belief within the Boomers program. Barnes would channel the anecdote that the Australian coat of arms showcased two animals, an emu and a kangaroo, neither of which would take a backward step. It was only fitting that the Australian team would adopt a similar ethos.

“That was certainly his mentality – he didn’t take a backward step,” Shane Heal – the legendary 3-point bomber who had played under Barnes since his days as a member of the under-12s – remembered fondly. “He didn’t want his team to. He grew up with a football mentality of we stuck together.”

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Heal, whether he knew it or not, would become the face of that brashness; he represented a conviction that the Boomers deserved to share equal billing with the other basketball world powers.

“We didn’t take a backward step from the fact that we did want to win a medal,” he said of that 2000 squad. “Sometimes when you set goals, you’re going to fall short.”

Four years earlier at Salt Lake City, Heal emerged as the emotional bellwether for the team, standing up to a trash-talking Dream Team that featured the likes of Charles Barkley and Gary Payton. On one particular play, Heal rose up for his third triple of the night, only for Barkley to undercut him in mid-air, leaving a flailing Heal sprawling to the hardwood. Heal's reaction? He certainly would not take a backward step.

“I did what I would have done – whether I was playing as a junior or in the NBL – I got up and told him what I thought,” he said.

Prior to the 2000 Games – ironically in another exhibition stoush with the Americans – Heal would be involved in yet another altercation.

The incident unfolded in Melbourne. Heal would stand up to Vince Carter, as the American stood over Andrew Gaze and glowered at Heal's Australian teammate and great friend. Those incidents would further send a message to the rest of the world: the Boomers were coming. They had matured as a basketball nation.

“There was never any preconceived plan on that was what we were going to do, or how it was going to happen,” Heal recalled. “We just don’t take a backward step.”

That collective strength was only possible because the Boomers were family, and they looked after each other like one. The connection amongst the playing group extended well beyond manufactured sporting tropes of kinship and togetherness. They genuinely cared for each other like brothers. They had developed a resilience through years of mateship; of touring together during the offseason to test their abilities against the best of the best, around the world.

Now they were united once again because of a common goal – the 2000 quest for a medal had been a dream that was years in the making. They had bonded equally over victories and losses. They had sacrificed time away from family to build Australian basketball up, tournament by tournament.

“Many of us had been teammates for many years and multiple Olympics,” remembered Andrew Vlahov, the former Boomers enforcer. “We took our honour of representing Australia very seriously, but it was always punctuated with important pieces of humour that often relieved tension and kept things in perspective.”

But what they went through as a group not only strengthened their resolve, it also made them value and treasure individual success as if they were of their own.

When Andrew Gaze was named the flag bearer for the Australian Olympic team, and thus its captain as well, there were none happier in this Olympic-crazed home nation than the very teammates he would share the news with.

Gaze had just finished a morning press conference with Mark Bradtke at the Olympic village, a staple of media commitments with the countdown to the Sydney Games at hand. As the two walked back to their quarters, Olympic chef de mission, John Coates, pulled them both aside.

“I wasn’t sure if he was going to tell us off or if we’d said the wrong thing,” Bradtke said.

Of course, Coates would go on to tell Gaze that he had been selected to lead the Australian Olympic team at a home Olympics.

“I remember him telling me and thinking, well there’s a but coming in – there’s going to be a reason why it wasn’t going to happen,” Gaze recalls with a chuckle. “But there wasn’t.”

“[Coates] told us not to tell anybody,” said Bradtke. “So as soon as we get out of the meeting we went and called our wives up. But we didn’t tell anybody else – we didn’t tell our teammates – he announced it the next night.”

“We had to hold onto it for a day and a half. It was quite emotional when he told the rest of the team who were down in Wollongong and he didn’t get too much out, but it was a fantastic moment to be a part of.”

Gaze may have been forbidden to share the news with any other teammate until the official announcement in the ensuing days, but there was one Boomer who was the exception. Gaze and Heal had roomed together since 1992, and the duo had formed a tight-knit bond over multiple tours of duty with the national team.

“He was sitting on his bed, and I was on my bed,” recalled Heal. “And he goes, ‘Mate, I’ve got to tell you. I just got told that I’m going to be the flag bearer.’”

“It was pretty emotional. He was really emotional about it happening.”

Courtesy of Davin Sgargetta/Brotherhood – The History of the Boomers

The significance of a Boomer being named captain of the Australian Olympic squad was not lost on Gaze's teammates. It was both a lifetime recognition of Gaze’s work with Australian basketball, and an acknowledgement that the Boomers were on the rise. Perhaps, it was also a snapshot of the growing national sentiment that the team was a real chance for a medal.

“Just basketball in general getting recognised – to be able to walk out in front of your home Olympics carrying the flag,” said Bradtke.

As you would expect, Gaze, excelled in his duties as the flag bearer in the opening ceremony. In the process, he likely harnessed more swirling patriotism and additional attention towards the Boomers’ Olympic quest.

“He had a personality to a role that hasn’t often seen personality in the past,” recalls Chris Anstey, who made his Olympic debut in Sydney. “And it’s the one that people still talk about.”

“He was a larrikin,” Heal said with a chuckle. “He was a great flag bearer.”

The group stage

The team approached the Olympic tournament in great form. During a lead up event in Hong Kong, they won the Stankovic Cup, defeating fellow Olympic Pool B combatants, Yugoslavia, in the final. In another pre-Olympic exhibition in Wollongong, the team defeated perennial European power, Lithuania.

But much to their chagrin, the Boomers opened Olympic pool play with consecutive losses to Canada and Yugoslavia, a reality check that severely dented their prospects for a medal.

“We were going into it really, really confident,” recalls Gaze. “At the time, we thought it was a bit of a shock that we lost to Canada. But Canada ended up winning the pool!”

There are no easy games in international competition. The Boomers went into the tournament aware of the opposition and the challenge at hand. Heal however, readily admitted that those initial games caught the team off-guard. With each passing loss, the difficulty in medalling escalated.

“The pressure mounts when you lose games, more so than the pressure of the expectations of winning a medal,” said Heal. “Once you lose games, then it’s like, okay, you don’t get too many chances at that level to lose too many games. You have to be able to regroup, stay together and end up winning big games to be able to get through.”

And regroup they did.

Faced with a must-win scenario in the three remaining pool games, the Boomers played some of their best basketball of the tournament, defeating Russia, Angola and Spain to reach the quarterfinals. The win over the Russians, in particular, was dramatic.

With just over 40 seconds remaining in regulation, and with the score tied at 71-71, Gaze hit what he described as the biggest shot of his life – a deep 3-ball from the left wing over two Russian defenders. In the ensuing pandemonium, he raised both fists to the air and let out a primal scream of defiance. Or perhaps, it was a scream of relief. The Boomers had lived precariously on a razor's edge since day one of competition after all.

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Courtesy of Davin Sgargetta/Brotherhood – The History of the Boomers

“Of all the baskets that I’d shot for Australia, the 3-pointer when it was all tied up, was one of the biggest shots that I’d ever hit,” says Gaze.

“If we lost that game, we were going to have to cross over to the United States in the quarter-final game. So it was an absolutely vital game for us.”

The Fightback

Olympic tournament play is demanding. Not only is it a gruelling schedule of eight games in two weeks – should you make the medal rounds – it's also often compounded by the emotional drain that comes with the highs and lows of elite competition.

That mental fatigue was further exacerbated by the pressures of performing at a home Olympics; an emotionally-charged joyride that reaches peak levels of stress, considering the internal expectations that the group had placed amongst themselves.

Medal, or bust.

After scraping through to the quarterfinals, the Boomers would face the reigning European champions, Italy, who had their own designs for a medal finish. In a tight-seesawing affair, Gaze had kept the Boomers in the game with 22 second-half points.

“It was another really, really close one,” recalls Gaze. “The thing I remember from that one probably the most, is Mark Bradtke had two of the biggest free throws I can ever remember an individual having to take down the stretch.”

“There was a timeout called and I still remember at the time thinking I was almost feeling sorry for Hogey [Bradke], because they were such big, big shots, and thinking at the time – Crikey, if there was any way I could swap places to take on that responsibility, I’d love to do it.”

Those sentiments weren’t necessarily inspired by thoughts of glory. Gaze had feared for the repercussions his great mate would have faced if he had missed.

“I was just feeling like I could deal with the consequences,’ explains Gaze. “I knew it wasn’t going to worry me. But I was thinking, if you miss these ones, I know how much it would hurt, whether it’s him or someone else.”

“Andrew has mentioned he didn’t listen during the timeout,” says Bradtke. “He was just worried about me shooting the foul shots.”

Not that you would realise they were the most important free throws in four years, the way Bradtke recounted the memory. All he remembered was adhering to the process of staying in the moment, aiming for the back of the rim, and making sure he had a follow through. He was almost oblivious to the unbearable pressure as the nation held their collective breath.

Bradtke, who shot 67 percent from the line at that tournament, would make them both, ultimately sending the Boomers though to the semi-final and medal rounds.

“The free throws were probably some of the biggest of Mark’s career and it was a thrill to watch him slot them,” recalled Andrew Vlahov. “He was instrumental in our strong recovery.”

“Hogey had such a high arch on his free throws, [that] it felt like they were in the air forever,” said Anstey.

“Probably looking back on it now, you don’t realise quite what the implications may have been if I’d missed,” said Bradtke. "But you’ve got to be confident, step up and make the shots.”

The win against the Italians had justified the Boomers’ pre-tournament belief – they belonged amongst the top basketball nations on Earth. Now into the semi-finals of the Olympics, they once again had the chance to play for that elusive medal – two chances, in fact.

“For us, it would mean regardless of how well we’d played in that game, we were going to be labelled as failures if we didn’t at least get through to the semi-finals,” said Gaze.

“I can still remember [seeing] Kieren Perkins, the swim team, a lot of the athletes, because you’re getting to the latter stages of the Olympics. A lot of the other athletes had finished. They’d all come and they were supporting us in this game as well. That added a little extra pressure too when you see these other Australian icons that are there to lend their support.”

Medal or Bust

The Boomers would ultimately succumb to France in their semi-final, a 76-52 shellacking that jibed with their internal expectations. Memories of the game itself are sketchy at this point in time – it has been 16 years, after all – but the feeling of unfulfillment remains strong.

“In that first semi-final we were playing against France, a winnable game for us,” said Gaze. “France had really come from nowhere. They’d beaten Canada in the cross-over game [round of 16], which was a surprise.”

“They were starting to gain some momentum. That was the game [when] Luc Longley got hurt. I think that sapped us a little bit knowing the big fella wasn’t there.”

“One of their key guys was Gregor Fučka who was a 6’11” inside-outside guy, who Bradtke matched up on really well,” Anstey mused.

Was there an emotional letdown? Gaze doesn’t believe so.

“I would say that it was extremely, physically demanding,” recalled Gaze. “It took every ounce of our energies to get to that stage to get that win [against Italy]. Physically, it did affect us. Mentally, I don’t think it did.”

“Whether we got ahead of ourselves or we got anxious in the situation, I’m not 100 percent sure what it was,” said Bradtke. “But that was probably the most disappointing loss that we had being so close to achieving the ultimate goal.”

Despite the loss to the French, the Boomers had one more shot for a medal in the bronze medal playoff against Lithuania. But the Boomers endured another heavy defeat, an 89-71 decision that was never close, with the team seemingly running out of steam the closer they were to attaining their ultimate goal.

Watching that game against the Lithuanians, the team just seemed a step slow, unable to cope with the Lithuanian pressure as they harassed the Boomers guards on defense. On offense, Saulius Štombergas and Šarūnas Jasikevičius had the game of their lives. At one point in the second half, Lithuania had built up a 23 point margin, at 59-36.

Still, the Boomers never stopped trying. Andrew Vlahov, Jason Smith and Ricky Grace brought grit and intensity when they took to the floor. Sam Mackinnon and Chris Anstey played well; Gaze finished with 22 points. But it ultimately proved futile with the Lithuanians just too good on the day. With the loss, the Boomers missed the chance to medal yet again.

“They were great teams. Certainly no excuses,” said Heal. “[There] shouldn’t have been any letdown – we were ready to go.”

“I was really disappointed afterwards. We were really shattered that we didn’t achieve our goal,” Heal recalled. “We were shattered that it was really the end of the run for that particular group. Everyone had got to a certain age and most of the guys that I’d played with were about to retire.”

“Did it leave you with a sour taste in your mouth knowing you didn’t get done what you set out to get done?” Anstey asked rhetorically. “From the guys who had huge roles, to the guys who played low minutes, I think everyone was extraordinarily disappointed with the way it ended up.”

After the loss to Lithuania, the Boomers sat around in a circle in their locker room to reflect on their journey. There was an implicit understanding that it was the end of an era; Gaze, Luc Longley, Mark Bradtke, Andrew Vlahov, amongst others, would retire from the international scene, and they would do so without having achieved the goal they had set out to achieve.

“We all sat around in the locker room after the game just in our uniforms, had a slab of beer in the middle, and just talked,” Bradtke recalled. “And we laughed, and we cried. All the fond memories of the experiences that we had over the journey. It was really nice just sitting there talking. There was no more what-ifs – that was it. That was the end.”

“We literally stayed there for hours, still in our gear,” Heal said. “We sat in a circle and talked, and hung out.”

There was closure in that moment, the appreciation that it was the end of the road, the end of the chase, for a core group that had collectively aspired for a medal over multiple Olympic campaigns. Yet despite this – despite the group leaving it all out of the floor for their country – an important question needed to be considered: relative to the team’s expectations and final performance, was it medal or bust?

“As we did not receive a medal, I can’t help but feel we underachieved,” Vlahov concluded.

“That was the disappointment,” said Anstey. “If we didn’t win a medal, it was as a bust.”

“I’m bitterly disappointed that we weren’t able to achieve our goal,” said Gaze. “But it’s not like we look back on it and think there’s many if onlys.”

“We gave it our best shot. [We] can’t point the finger at anything other than the opposition just was better than us on the day.”

“Regrets? No. Disappointment? Yes,” added Anstey. “But at the end of the day, you’re still in the last four [teams] – four of the best basketball nations in the world – at a time when Australian basketball was emerging, [which] was a pretty big moment.”

A message to the Boomers in Rio

Mark Bradtke had never been to an Olympic closing ceremony since his debut at the 1988 Seoul Games.

“I’m not really into the holding hands, dance around in circles, celebrating the closure of the Olympics,” he explained. But it was different with Sydney.

If the reminiscing in the locker room immediately after the loss to Lithuania had served as a moment of closure for those in that Boomers squad intending to retire, this moment would serve as the beckoning of a new era.

At the locker room, Bradtke and Shane Heal got dressed in their closing ceremony outfits, and together with Matthew Nielsen [not in the squad] and Wayne Peterson [the court announcer at the time], caught the train to Circular Quay. The quartet wanted to experience the closing ceremony, only, they didn’t want to experience it from an athlete's perspective.

“We all jumped on a train to the City and just went to Circular Quay to watch the closing ceremony on the big screen,” recalled Bradtke. “We’d gone from being an athlete to going there and just being a spectator, and seeing what the Olympics meant to every person. [We] just milled around Circular Quay and all the sites down there in the city.

“It was a great way to see how much happiness sport brings to people. It was a nice change from the intimate time we had in the locker, to a few hours later where we’re walking around the general public. It was awesome just to finish up like that.”

The moment served to underscore not only what the Olympic quest meant to the Boomers, but what the Olympics meant to Australians. Though the Boomers ultimately had an unhappy tale to tell in their quest for a medal, they themselves had brought happiness to the people.

“I remember taking the train to the City with those guys for a function,” said Heal. “That’s when we got amongst the people, and [saw] how excited everybody was with the Games, and the whole atmosphere of all of Australia coming together, no matter what sport it was.”

That’s the message that Bradtke has for the current Boomers squad who will fly to Rio with dreams of a medal. Like the Sydney team, this current squad has high expectations; and perhaps the Sydney 2000 Boomers experience serves as a cautionary tale of just how difficult it really is.

“You want to make Australia proud,” Bradtke firmly said. “Australians are very competitive. We like to push it to as far as we can go. We want to try and take on everybody. We want to try and win. But also at the same time the Australian public understand that if you’re doing best, that’s what they want to see. They want to see fighters.”

“Enjoy the experience and have fun,” Gaze added. “The system, the on-court stuff, will take care of itself provided there is the understanding that quite often you have to sacrifice. You’ve got to sometimes sacrifice your own objectives to fulfil the role that’s required of the team.”

Anstey has a more pragmatic message for the current squad: Don’t go to the opening ceremony.

He cites the physical and mental exertion required of an athlete at an opening ceremony, an event which typically takes up to six hours to complete, and with participating athletes on their feet for most of that time.

“You need every advantage that you can get,” he said.

Every game is just so crucial; lose one game, and you’re immediately on the back-foot. Just ask the 2000 Boomers, who had to fight their way back into the tournament after a slow start. It’s a lesson that’s been learned.

“What you wouldn’t give to have that Olympic medal hanging around your neck,” Anstey said ruefully.

16 years later, those medal hopes remain, albeit residing within a new era of Australian basketball. The Rio squad is laden with talent, and has the requisite self-belief not to take a backward step. And much like Sydney 2000, the country will be right behind this Boomers squad, and dare to dream big, whether it’s medal or bust.

Thank you to Andrew Gaze, Shane Heal, Chris Anstey, Mark Bradtke and Andrew Vlahov for their generosity of time. Also, a thank you to Stephanie Nakatani of Inky Cat Studio for the feature image. You can follow her on social media at FB/Insta: inkycatstudio.