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On Boomers and medal history II: Persistent heartbreak through a next generation
Uncertainty through the current generation, and how they battled through.
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.
The first arc begins with the early Boomers who pioneered Australia’s rise as a basketball nation, and concludes with the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
The second arc covers the current core generation, and how they persisted through heartbreak.
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Goorjian steps down from Boomers
Following the 2008 Olympics, a significant announcement reverberated through the Australian basketball community. Brian Goorjian made the decision to step down as head coach of the Australian Boomers. Goorjian was appointed head coach in late 2001, following Phil Smyth's tumultuous stint in charge. By becoming the Boomers coach, Goorjian made history as the first foreign born man to lead the program.
Australia’s performance under Goorjian was marked by inconsistencies. Australia qualified for the 2004 Athens Olympics, where they finished ninth, dropping five places from their 2000 finish. The Boomers failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup and struggled at the 2006 event, finishing 13th. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Boomers improved their positioning to finish seventh, but the program remained a long way away from their goal.
Bogut ruled out of London
Andrew Bogut was ruled out of the 2012 London Olympics due to a left ankle fracture, dealing a severe blow to Australia’s medal hopes. This was not just a setback for Bogut personally, but also for the entire Boomers program. The number one draft pick in 2005’s NBA draft, Bogut was Australia’s leading man and earmarked to lead the Boomers in London.
Bogut's stature as an NBA player, along with his impressive performances in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, made him an essential piece in Australia's strategy for the 2012 games. The team was banking on his defensive prowess, offensive playmaking and his overall basketball intelligence to make a significant impact in London. It was not meant to be. Bogut suffered an ankle injury on a bad landing while playing for the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks in January 2012. Despite Bogut’s intense desire to represent Australia and contribute to the team's success, the ailment prevented him from participating. His dream of an Olympic medal would have to wait.
Struggling Boomers stuck in quarters
The 2012 Olympic campaign ended for Australia with defeat at the hands of Team USA in the quarter finals. It was a predictable and familiar finishing point for the Boomers. After getting through the group phase, Australia was given a near-impossible mission against the Americans, who maintained dominance in international basketball especially after NBA players began suiting up for Team USA. The result played out as expected.
While the finishing position harkened back to Olympic campaigns of the past, there was something new about this Boomers team. The next Boomers generation, some of whom had made their major tournament debut in the 2008 Olympics at Beijing, began to ascend in 2012 - the promise of youth was aplenty. Joe Ingles led the team in minutes played in London. Patty Mills led the team in scoring, with his trademark three ball securing a last-minute victory over Russia in pool play. Meanwhile Matthew Dellavedova, a 21 year old college athlete, introduced himself to the international basketball community. These three budding starlets gave a glimpse of what the future could bring.
Boomers go bust!
It was never a fair fight. The power of Team USA going up against a youthful Australian outfit in the Olympic quarter-final of 2012 was a literal David v Goliath, but there was no fairytale upset to be had. The Boomers made a valiant effort led by Patty Mills and Joe Ingles, who combined for 45 points. Australia made an 11-0 run early in the third quarter and kept the game tight, but America rallied and went on a scoring surge, winning 119-86 as Kobe Bryant (20 points) and LeBron James (14 rebounds and 11 assists) led a team full of Hall of Fame players past a plucky Australian side.
The talent on this Team USA roster was something to behold. Bryant and James were just the tip of the iceberg - Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, James Harden, Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook all contributed on an American march to gold. Yet again, Australia was a mere speedbump on their way to a resounding tournament victory.
Going for Gold
"Our goals are to achieve something Australia's never done before - to win a medal. Our goal is gold - we've dreamt about it from when we were little kids, laying in bed dreaming about it, getting that gold medal put around our necks on the podium. To put that into reality [would be amazing],” Patty Mills said in 2016, a month from the Rio Olympics. "We're going to the Olympics not to just participate, but to try to win a gold medal. We all believe in it. That's the belief we have. I think it's been more felt this time around than any other program I've been involved in."
This playing squad wasn't just aiming for history, they were aiming to be the best team in the world. “Our goal was to win a gold medal,” Kevin Lisch recounted in 2017, after the tournament. From NBA superstars to NBL veterans, the playing group was united over a common goal. There was internal belief that 2016 would be the year Australia conquered the basketball world. “The goal is going to be a gold medal,” Damian Martin explained, when explaining his memories of the lead in Rio.“This is the message we are going to send and we are going to have complete buy-in.”
Where did this confidence come from? Australia, after all, had yet to medal at a major tournament, so what gave them the right to believe they could stand atop the dais? Martin credits Andrew Bogut for instilling confidence into the group. “It was amazing, it was powerful and Andrew Bogut led that from the front,” Martin added. Bogut’s confidence was thrust upon the playing group. This wasn't a repeat of Sydney, there were no Medal or Bust proclamations.
This was a confident belief that this Boomers squad, one with more NBA talent than ever, could achieve the gold standard.
Finding success among world’s best
In the leadup to the Rio Olympics, the number of Australians in the NBA was at a record high. Andrew Bogut was the most notable – winning a championship with Golden State in 2015, then playing a starting role on the greatest regular season team of all time in 2016, when the Warriors set a historical 73-9 regular season milestone.
Bogut’s Warriors met Matthew Dellavedova’s Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals in 2015 and 2016. Dellavedova’s graduation from Maryborough to NBA champion was completed when LeBron James led the Cavs to a historic Game 7 victory over Bogut’s Warriors in 2016. Two years earlier, Patty Mills and Aron Baynes each had their championship moment, earning minutes as the San Antonio Spurs claimed their fifth title over the Miami Heat. Joe Ingles, too, had found an NBA home in Utah with the Jazz. These were unprecedented days.
Boomers appoint Lemanis
Andrej Lemanis was tasked with leading the Australian Boomers to the 2016 Olympic Games. Lemanis, who previously served as assistant coach under Brett Brown at the 2010 FIBA World Championships and 2012 London Olympic Games, came into the role with a championship pedigree. He turned the New Zealand Breakers into the NBL's most dominant team, leading the club to three consecutive championships between 2011-2013.
"I am honoured and humbled to be given the opportunity to lead the Boomers during this Olympic cycle," Lemanis said in 2013, when speaking on his appointment. Lemanis' ability to connect with players and motivate was an instrumental factor in his appointment. Australia entered the 2016 Rio games with a local coach leading the golden generation.
Medal rounds await, first since Sydney 2000
Australia secured their place in the semi-finals of the Rio Olympics, following a dominating victory over Lithuania in a quarter-final that was never close. Patty Mills started hot and Chris Goulding's scoring binge secured the victory. The Boomers won three straight, after trouncing China and Venezuela to close out group play.
They then returned to a familiar stage. Serbia was next up and the Boomers were, again, just one win away from a medal. They had never been better placed. Winning five of six games in Rio, Australia’s only defeat came at the hands of Team USA. It was a close affair and the Boomers impressively bounced back to secure their place in the medal rounds. One more triumph would take Australian men’s basketball to a place it has never before been.
Boomers fall into familiar fourth
It all came down to one play. The Australian Boomers were leading with 9.7 seconds remaining in an Olympic medal game. Australia’s first Olympic medal in men’s basketball was no longer just a dream. It was now within reach. Thanks to an Aron Baynes hook shot – one that bounced around the rim long enough for a nation to hold their breath – history was about to be made. All that stood between the Boomers and their bronzed pendant was one defensive stop.
The cutthroat world of international basketball taught the Boomers another lesson on that night. Those fateful 9.7 seconds twisted a knife into the Boomers' fortunes. Patty Mills was judged to have fouled Sergio Rodriguez on the game’s last drive to the basket, an infraction that sent the Spaniard to the free throw line. Once there, Rodriguez calmly secured two points, facilitating the final lead change of a frantic match. Australia tried, and failed, at getting off a potential buzzer beating response. Luc Longley put it best. Finishing fourth was a failure and no amount of adulation would mask the disappointment. “I thought that we underachieved in the end,“ Longley said in 2017. “We’ve come fourth a number of times with much less talent.”
Boom Time for Basketball
August 25, 2019 would always be the day the Australian Boomers made history. At Marvel Stadium, In front of 52,079 adoring fans, the Boomers defeated Team USA for the first time in their history. The Boomers triumph accomplished two historic feats. The Americans tasted a competitive defeat since fielding NBA players for the first time in 13 years. For the Boomers, victory was their first in 67 attempts against Team USA. The goliath of global men’s basketball went down, with enduring memory being a scoring binge from Patty Mills during the game’s final sequence.
Mills went deep into his kitbag, scoring the Boomers’ final 10 points, to produce the most important scoring outburst in Australian basketball history. While Mills delivered the finishing move, others played starring roles that night. Mitch Creek stonewalled Donovan Mitchell on the game’s most vital possession. Joe Ingles was brilliant. Aron Baynes was the enforcer. Nick Kay revealed himself to a global audience. This was a victory generations in the making. The Australian Boomers finally defeated Team USA in a basketball game.
Guaranteed medal lost in thriller
It was déjà vu. Three years on from the Rio Olympics, Spain was once again in Australia’s path. This time, the stakes were higher. The teams faced off in the semi-final of 2019’s FIBA World Cup. A place in the final, not to mention a guaranteed medal was on the line. And this was no consolation prize either - Team USA had been eliminated. Argentina was awaiting in the final, with either Spain or Australia destined to be betting favourites in the decider. Australia was on the precipice of history. A world championship was there for the taking. That was what could have been.
The box score showed that Spain defeated the Boomers 95-88 in double overtime, before claiming the title two days later. The numbers and history books would never fully capture this moment of heartbreak. Patty Mills missed a free throw with 4.7 seconds left, that would have won the game for Australia. Matthew Dellavedova’s heave to end the first overtime rimmed out. The game was in Australia’s hands, and they couldn’t deliver the finishing move. It was eerily causing similar flashbacks to the exact same contest three years earlier at the Rio Olympics. The Boomers were one moment away from making history, and couldn’t get it done.
There’s still hope
A bronze medal match against France offered one final shot at a tournament medal. The Boomers did so much right - both across the tournament and in this final showdown against France. Yet despite leading after every quarter and holding France to a slender 38% shooting from the field, a recurrent event played out. Australia couldn’t get over the hump. France closed the game on a 12-3 run, securing a 67-59 triumph to condemn Australia to yet another fourth place finish.
The China World Cup delivered an all too familiar narrative: once again, the Australian Boomers did not capitalise on another semi-final appearance. Defeat to Spain was followed by a disappointing fadeout against France two nights later. Despite standing on the precipice of a breakthrough medal, they again returned home with no medallion for their efforts. This was a devastating blow. Time was running out for the golden generation of Australian basketball to medal at a major tournament.
Bogut calls time
Andrew Bogut left behind a tremendous legacy. His selection as the number one pick in 2005’s NBA Draft elevated Australian basketball to uncharted heights. He pushed boundaries and raised the bar for future generations. His basketball legacy, defined by resilience and selflessness, emerged despite a cataclysmic injury in Milwaukee that threatened to derail his career.
Bogut's resurrection with the surging Golden State Warriors solidified his standing as a basketball colossus, culminating in an NBA championship in 2015 and an audacious record-breaking 73-win campaign the following year. His playmaking and defensive prowess galvanised the Warriors, helping cement their rise to the top of the NBA. Bogut was a sporting pioneer who left behind a resonant legacy that would endure the test of time.
Lemanis, Brown and further uncertainty
Andrej Lemanis was out as the Boomers coach, and Australian basketball’s favourite American returns. That was the messaging from Basketball Australia in late 2019, when it was announced Brett Brown would be returning to coach the Boomers for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It all made sense. Brown, who led Australia into the 2012 Olympic Games, was Ben Simmons’ NBA coach in Philadelphia with the 76ers. He was a leading advocate for Australian basketball and had the resume of a man who could finally take this national program onto the podium in Tokyo.
It all sounded too good to be true, and it was. Brown never returned to coach Australia. The COVID-19 pandemic arrived and changed everything. In October 2020, eleven months after the coaching change was announced, Brown stepped away from the role. He had just been sacked by the 76ers. It was unknown if the Tokyo Olympics would even happen.
Uncertainty is a defining characteristic of the Australian Boomers experience.