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On Boomers and medal history I: Building the foundation, and coming up short
It begins with the early Boomers who pioneered Australia’s rise as a basketball nation.
This series narrates three broad arcs on the Australian national men’s basketball team and their generational journey towards a first ever Olympic medal, as we move towards the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup.
Generational fourths continue for Australia
For a long time, fourth place defined the Australian Boomers program. The team finished fourth in every way imaginable. The 1988 Olympics in Seoul marked the first time Australia finished fourth at an Olympic Games. At that time, defeat was painful, albeit optimistic given the program was progressing further than ever before. Defeat was harder to stomach in 1996, and then devastating in 2000 on home soil in Sydney. With each passing defeat, the pain grew worse. Then 2016 happened.
Defeat to Spain in Rio was a sporting catastrophe. Australia was leading an Olympic medal game with 9.7 seconds remaining. One defensive stop was all Australia needed to secure a breakthrough medal. “We were right there,” Joe Ingles later admitted. Australia was right there. History was not on Australia’s side that night. Patty Mills was judged to have fouled Sergio Rodriguez on Spain’s final possession, who calmly slotted two free throws to relegate Australia to fourth place once more.
The 2019 FIBA World Cup then offered Australia their best chance to burst through their glass ceiling of fourth place. A bronze medal match against France presented yet another opportunity at a tournament medal. Despite leading after every quarter, the Boomers couldn’t make history. France closed the game on a 12-3 run, relegating Australia to yet another fourth place finish. This had become a generational trend. Their playing talent increased, but the Boomers could not get over the hump.
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The story begins with the early Boomers who pioneered Australia’s rise as a basketball nation, and concludes with the 2000 Sydney Olympics in this arc.
Searching for basketball success
During the period from 1960 to 1980, the Australian Boomers struggled to make their mark at international tournaments. Australia failed to qualify for the 1960 and 1968 Olympic Games. Despite making the tournament in 1964, 1972 and 1976, the team didn’t finish higher than eighth place at an Olympiad until 1984.
On-court team success was out of reach, but this first group of Boomers punched above their weight. Lindsay Gaze was influential as both a player and head coach for the Boomers at multiple Olympics. Ed Palubinskas was a scoring machine, finishing as the second leading scorer at the 1972 Olympics enroute to making the All-World Olympic Team. Phil Smyth, widely known as “The General”, was one of the best point guards of his time. Ian Davies averaged 29.3 points per game at the 1980 Olympics. Their performances garnered admiration and put the sport on the map for a new generation of Australian basketball athletes.
Team USA remains the gold standard
Team USA’s gold medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal further cemented their status as basketball’s behemoth. Led by legendary head coach Dean Smith, Team USA entered the tournament with sky-high expectations and a star-studded roster, including basketball icons such as Adrian Dantley and Mitch Kupchak.
America’s sheer talent was too much for the international field. Their collective skill and athleticism was on another level, overwhelming opponents with their fast-paced, dynamic playing style. Team USA defeated Yugoslavia, a European powerhouse at the time, in the gold medal game to finish the tournament undefeated at 7-0. An eighth straight gold medal solidified America’s excellence.
Déjà vu strikes fourth place Boomers
The Australian Boomers' pursuit of an Olympic basketball medal has been marked by the agony of multiple fourth-place finishes. The 2000 Sydney Olympics was poised to be different. With the support of a passionate home crowd and an Andrew Gaze-led squad boasting the likes of Luc Longley, Shane Heal, Mark Bradtke, Andrew Vlahov, Chris Anstey and more, this era marked Australia’s rise as a legitimate basketball nation. This was the most talented roster the country had ever produced.
That year’s Boomers had custom T-shirts that read M-O-B. “Everyone thought, oh it’s a “mob’, a mob of kangaroos with the Boomers,” Andrew Gaze shared in 2016. “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.” But once again they fell short of history.
Australia battled valiantly, leaving it all on the court, as they competed in fiercely contested encounters against international heavyweights. Yet, as the dust settled and the curtains closed, the Boomers were once again left grappling with the cruel reality of fourth place. A crushing defeat to Lithuania in the bronze medal game sealed their fate. The pain of fourth place would again carry them forward and ignite a quest for redemption within Australian basketball.
End of an Era
“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,” Mark 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.”
Roster upheaval followed the Boomers after their fourth place finish in Sydney. Andrew Gaze, Luc Longley, Andrew Vlahov and Mark Bradtke all retired from international basketball following the Sydney Games. Shane Heal, who originally also retired with the others, reversed his decision to help the squad at the Athens Olympics. 2000 was their Olympic swansong. Despite Heal’s subsequent return, this era marked a figurative passing of the torch within the program. Gaze’s retirement signified this more than anyone else, as the Gaze family name - with both Lindsay, then Andrew - had become synonymous with Australian basketball at major tournaments. Those days were over.
The post-Sydney Boomers’ on-court performance took a significant hit, and it showed when Australia lost the FIBA Oceania Cup to New Zealand for the first time ever in 2001. This was a significant blow, as it meant Australia failed to qualify for a World Cup (2002) for the first time in over 30 years.