By Austin Albertson
The United States has been the unquestionable king of the mountain for basketball since the NBA permitted their players to participate in international competition. Starting with the ‘Dream Team’ in 1992, the US have decimated their rivals, winning by an average margin of 31.8 per game from 1992-1998. The team was so far above the bar for the rest of the world, and it showed.
But, in 2002 at the world champs, the rest of the world caught up. And since the Americans handed three losses, including one by the Pau Gasol-led Spanish national team, Team USA has had a thorn in its side to the tune of the Spaniards. Team USA has been the thorn in theirs, as well. At the 2004 Olympics, it was Team USA who ended the hopes of an undefeated Spain, as the US knocked them out of contention for a medal.
Spain would pay the US back in 2006, winning the FIBA World Championships following US’s elimination. Team USA’s loss (and seeing the success of Spain) set the stage for a renewed determination by the US to reclaim its status as the world’s best. At Beijing 2008, the US would field the ‘Redeem Team’, a cast of All-Stars set on bringing back the acclaim of the 1990s Team USA. They would meet Spain again, this time in the gold medal game. And with a superhuman effort from Kobe Bryant, the US would reclaim its throne and deny Spain’s quest for gold again.
The 2012 Games would see a repeat, as the US again knocked over Spain for gold, asserting their dominance in the rivalry but also receiving their toughest test from the Europeans. The 2014 FIBA World Cup would again provide a chance for Spain and the US to square off, this time with Spain hosting the competition. However, Spain would be upset along the way, and watch the US take another championship on their own soil.
As the 2016 Games in Rio kicked off, it was to be another year of the US and Spain fighting for supremacy. But, with Spain’s early loss to Croatia, and the absence of Marc Gasol, the squad was largely written off, believed to be in the twilight hours of a competitive run that had finally come to a close. Since then, however, Spain has found its groove, winning each game thereafter and advancing into the semifinals yet again to challenge for the gold one more time.
Standing in their path, again, is the mighty United States, filled with players that are not lost in this historic rivalry. Team USA captain Carmelo Anthony said, “We know the history, we’ve seen these guys before. We’re going to be ready.”
Even Kyle Lowry, a fresh face to Team USA pursuit, added: “We know how big this is. They are always who we go through, and we know [Spain] will be a big challenge.”
This isn’t the Spain of old, as they may be missing their key contributor in Pau Gasol.
Head coach Sergio Scariolo told reporters that, “I cannot say for sure that he is going to play.”
Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski isn’t buying it, however, and said Team USA would prepare for Spain as if Gasol was healthy. Either way, this is a Spanish team that is not quite what it was during those 2008 and 2012 runs.
With more miles on the squad, Spain will go for the improbable yet another time in its quest for that elusive first gold medal. It’s fitting that it will be against the team solely responsible for keeping them from it all this time.
It’s fitting to see these two go toe-to-toe once more on the largest of international stages. And while the result may be the same again, it’s a great sendoff to more than a decade of fierce competition.