The Australian Boomers 2016 Olympic campaign is customarily distilled into one game. One moment, actually, of astonishing sporting heartbreak.
A one-point defeat to Spain in the bronze medal game ended the Boomers’ tournament, and denied their country a maiden Olympic medal in men’s basketball. It’s a moment that lives on in infamy, and for all involved, continues to be the source of much anguish.
Even today, Ryan Broekhoff struggles to talk about it.
“It’s still tough to look back on,” Broekhoff told The Pick and Roll. “It’s still something… I think it’s always going to be raw whenever it gets brought up. Just to be so close.”
To be on the precipice of a breakthrough medal and fall short was devastating: for the twelve Boomers present in Brazil, the coaching staff and everyone with a vested interest in the sport.
Broekhoff’s Boomers finished fourth in the Olympic Games, just as their predecessors had on three separate occasions. In that sense, the 2016 Boomers came up short: in the harsh light of day, they failed to achieve their on-court goal. Because make no mistake, these Boomers were good enough to medal. Internally, this was always the belief and the playing group validated their claims on the Rio hardwood.
Defeat to Spain stole headlines in the aftermath, to such an extent that it is regularly forgotten how close the Boomers came to defeating Team USA earlier in the tournament.
Going up against basketball’s global behemoth, the Boomers gave the Americans what proved to be their toughest game en route to Olympic gold. Australia trailed by four points in the final minutes, and an upset for the ages was within reach until Carmelo Anthony wound back the clock.
The Boomers’ 10-point defeat was the equal closest they have got to Team USA in eight Olympic encounters, dating back to Melbourne in 1956. Their 88 points were the most they have ever scored on the Americans.
Andrew Gaze told me last year that this performance got the attention of the basketball world. Yes, the Boomers left defeated, but things were different this time. A happy to be there mentality that too often infiltrates the Australian sporting psyche was abolished. These Boomers came to win.
“We went into that [Team USA] game firmly believing we were going to win,” Broekhoff said.
“Through the first three quarters, and even half way through the fourth, we thought we were in a position to do that. They made some plays down the end and built that 8 to 10 point lead. It’s tough to come back against such a talented team like that.
“We were obviously very disappointed with how it finished and thought if we clean up a few things, and if we got a chance to play them in the gold medal game, then things would have been very interesting. Unfortunately we didn’t get that chance.”
The Boomers didn’t get a chance at redemption because of their capitulation against Serbia in the semi finals. A frank Andrew Bogut told explained that his team “absolutely shat the bed” during their 87-61 defeat to the Serbians. It is hard to argue against him.
It’s equally difficult to argue against the power of what awaits the basketball community in 2019.
With Team USA heading to Melbourne for two marquee match-ups at Marvel Stadium, the Boomers will get another opportunity to test themselves against the very best. They will get one final chance to grow ahead of September’s World Cup in China.
“The only way we, as Australia, get better as a basketball nation, is if we are playing the best,” Dante Exum told The Pick and Roll in Memphis this month.
“Those Boomers games against Team USA are going to be a really good opportunity to grow basketball. By us challenging ourselves, and saying that we can compete with the best and that we want to play the best.”
Exum wasn’t in Rio, as he was on the comeback trail from an ACL tear suffered in a Boomers jersey 12-months earlier. That makes him, along with other starlets Ben Simmons, Thon Maker and Jonah Bolden, the cavalry riding in to help elevate the playing squad.
Exum’s perspective on next August’s Team USA encounters isn’t painted with revenge. While he escaped the heartbreak of Rio, Exum is able to identify the potential that awaits.
“I think it’s just a great opportunity. Team USA know they need to bring their best team to win. I think we are going to give them a run for their money. It’s going to be a great hit out.”
The theming seems apt. Revenge won’t be on offer in Melbourne. No volume of Patty Mills three-pointers or Aron Baynes hard screens can rewrite 2016’s basketball sorrow. But something bigger is at play. Two transcendent games in Melbourne, at the height of AFL football season, will speak to something bigger than everything that came before them.
“It could be the biggest basketball event to ever come to Australia,” Broekhoff said.
“I was lucky to be at the launch. Lucky that I was able to be home and get a feel for what it’s going to look like. I got a first look at how they plan to set up the court and the seating. It’s going to be an amazing atmosphere.”
Just who takes part for Team USA remains a mystery. Talk of LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant representing their nation on Australian shores drives the media narrative, but this remains extremely unlikely. The realities of life as an NBA superstar dictate as much. Attempting to speak their presence in Melbourne into existence is akin to the old adage of shooting for the moon, knowing that if you fall short, you’ll still land on the stars.
Would these A-List names be welcomed? Of course, but they aren’t needed. A team full of secondary and tertiary American NBA athletes – names like Devin Booker and Khris Middleton, both of whom represent the calibre of players that will likely represent Team USA – would still provide the greatest collection of basketballers to ever take the floor in Australia.
The NBA’s digital presence in Australia means it is less important who from the league participates; validation comes from both sides being loaded with NBA players. That is an unquestioned guarantee. The home team will have legitimate NBA star power, as will their opponent.
“Basketball in Australia is so popular now and the NBA is so popular,” Broekhoff explained. “Especially with the amount of Australian’s doing well over here.
“I think it’s the perfect time to bring the Team USA out. From a marketing perspective, it is the perfect time and I’m sure tickets have gone quickly. It’s going to be a great spectacle for Melbourne and Australian basketball.”
Two games against Team USA will provide a rallying cry for the sport. They will allow a sporting nation to dream of defeating a global sporting institution, in what the Australian basketball community hopes is foreboding of dethroning them in Olympic glory.
Best of all, this is now a realistic belief. The Boomers accomplishments in Rio extended beyond their punctuating defeat. The movement they created represents the ultimate sign of basketball’s growth. It also signalled a maturation of expectations, both within the Boomers program and the sporting community.
Ryan Broekhoff has the perfect descriptor for whatever lies ahead.
“Optimism,” Broekhoff said, when asked to describe his thoughts on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“We showed what we are capable of, and when everyone buys in together, what we are capable of. We’ve got some incredibly talented younger players coming through now and it’s going to be very tough to make the team but I think that competition is what we need to take the next step and win a medal. Hopefully everyone is going to be available and fit and healthy, and we can really give it a crack.”
Sanguinity is, rightfully, in the air for the Australian Boomers. A date with Team USA, and the subsequent events that will follow, can’t arrive soon enough.