The worlds obsession with the fortunes of Olympic athletes starts more or less in the few months that lead up to the Games,but if you are to be a part of the United States basketball contingent,the glare is trained on you more or less relentlessly.
The global profile and the absurdly competitive nature of the NBA has something to do with it,but the scrutiny and pressure are mainly down to the remarkable Olympic history that the team is expected to live up to.
Few teams have come to dominate a sport at the Olympics as thoroughly as the United States basketball side,as their 123-5 win-loss record would indicate. The team has picked up a whopping 13 golds in 16 editions,never finishing without a medal. And controversy still shrouds their silver medal finish at Munich 1972 (See box).
Despite the invincibility that the numbers hint at,the United States have had a relatively quiet decade coming into London. After winning yet another gold at Sydney 2000,the team went through a barren run.
At the 2002 World Championship at home,they finished an embarrassing sixth,and at Athens 2004,could only win bronze.
Things turned around after the 2006 appointment of Mike Krzyzewski,a former player and a highly successful coach at the university level.
After off-loading high profile players (including All-Stars Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett) who refused to commit for at least three years,Krzyzewski took the team to a bronze at the Worlds the same year. His long term plans for the team bore fruit when the side won gold at Beijing and at the 2010 Worlds in Turkey.
Injuries will deprive the current team of Dwight Howard and current NBA champions Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh of Miami Heat,but Krzyzewski has instead focused on athleticism and diversity.
While veterans LeBron James and Kobe Bryant,and Kevin Durant can alternate between playing guard and forward,the team also stands to benefit from younger legs. Five of their 12 strong squad are less than 25 years of age,a greater proportion than ever in the past.
Nightmare and Redeem
In almost militaristic fashion,the American media habitually annoints the national basketball teams with suitable monikers. The team that lost to Puerto Rico,Lituania and Argentina to finish third in Athens 04 was the The Nightmare Team, while the winners at Beijing 08 were The Redeem Team. The most famous of them all epithet-ed teams was The Dream Team of 1992. FIBAs 1989 decision to allow NBA professionals to participate at the Games saw the likes of Magic Johnson,Michael Jordan,Karl Malone,Larry Bird and Scottie Pippen score an average of 44 points more than opponents per game and went through to win gold without calling a single time out during the tournament.
Beating the unbeatable
Coming in to the play-off for gold in Munich 72,US had won seven straight golds and were on a 64-0 run. The team to suffer most,were the Soviet Union,finishing second on four of these occasions. The Munich final was close,but with seconds left,US went ahead 50-49. Twice the hooter went before the Soviets could reply,and twice the decision was revoked. On the third time the final three seconds were replayed,the Soviets finally sank a lay-up,as the buzzer sounded. Despite USs protests,the referees verdict stood and the invincibles were defeat at the Games.