The (Not So) Little Team That Could: The World Championship
Colorado Springs, Colo. - March 9, 2010
Believing in themselves and ignoring those who said they belong on the Island of Misfit Toys instead of playing against some of the world's best, the U.S. team opened the competition by defeating Brazil 83-59 as Alexis, the oldest player on the team, recorded 13 points and eight rebounds. Competing in front of his home crowd Michael Hawkins, who played the 1997-98 season for Olympiakos in Athens, tallied 12 points and passed for a USA World Championship single game record 10 assists, a record that still stands today.
One day later, Jimmy Oliver's would-be game winning three at the buzzer rolled in then out as Lithuania held on to collect an 84-82 victory. Oliver finished with a team high 18 points.
Jason Sasser scored 11 of the USA's first 13 points of the second half to help the USA break away from South Korea and capture an 88-62 victory in its final preliminary round game.
Advancing to second round play, the USA trio of Alexis, Oliver and Hawkins combined to score 53 points and shot 10-of-14 from three-point as the U.S. fought off Argentina 87-74.
Oliver scored a team high 17 points including the go ahead three-pointer with 1:19 remaining to give the USA its first lead of the game as the U.S. rallied to earn a hard fought 75-73 victory over Spain.
Facing Australia in a game the USA needed to win to earn the Group F No. 1 seed and Australia needed just to advance to the medal round quarterfinals, the USA clicked on all cylinders and routed the Aussies 96-78.
Thanks to inspired clutch play from guards Kiwane Garris and Hawkins, the U.S. persevered and managed to record an 80-77 victory over Italy in quarterfinals play. The USA was led by Hawkins' 16 points and six assists, while Alexis added 14 points and Garris finished with 11.
The USA's quest for gold came to a halt after Russia overcame a 10-point USA lead in the final three minutes and forward Serguei Panov went coast-to-coast to score a layup with 4 seconds left to give his team an improbable 66-64 win.
-The biggest thing I remember was the play when Panov went coast to coast and layed it in to beat us," Langdon recalled. -I remember how devastated we were because it was such a hard fought game that we controlled for a lot of the game."
The dramatic finish was set up after Serguei Babkov made his fourth 3-pointer of the game to tie it up 64-all with 1:22 to play. The U.S. then missed a 3-point shot on the other end, but applied defensive pressure and forced Russia into a shot clock violation with 34.4 second left. The U.S. looked to run the clock down and take the game's final shot, but Hawkins was whistled for an offensive foul as he drove to the basket, giving Russia the ball with 10 seconds left. Russia inbounded the ball to the 6-8 Panov, who drove the length of the court for the final points of the game.
The clock continued to run as the U.S. attempted to retrieve the ball and when Alexis finally caught the ball, his shot from just inside the half court went in, but was ruled to have come after time had expired. Gerard King was the USA's only scorer in double figures with 10 points while adding six rebounds.
-To lose only two games in the whole tournament and play for the bronze was a little disheartening," said Alexis. -I do think that where we started and where we ended up was an accomplishment in itself, but we felt we should have been playing in that gold medal game."
-Even though everybody was disappointed about losing to Russia, coach Tomjanovich got the message across that our job wasn't done yet," added Alexis. -We'd come a long way and despite the frustration of not getting a shot at Yugoslavia, that we still had a job to finish. A lot of guys, those like myself that had the experience, this was an opportunity that if not for the lockout, I would not have gotten the opportunity. The older players took it upon ourselves to make sure that everybody was ready to play, and we didn't go home empty handed."
Meeting host Greece in the bronze medal contest on August 9, behind Sasser's game high 23 points and a defense that never let Greece find its rhythm, the United States jumped the Greeks early and stormed to an 84-61 victory to capture a bronze medal.
-You always set your goals for the gold," Wood said following the final game. -But this is the greatest accomplishment of my basketball career."
-Gearing up for the bronze medal game wasn't difficult," said Langdon. -I was young and just wanted an opportunity to play. We had a chance to get the bronze, and I think we were motivated to come home with something."
In the gold medal contest, Yugoslavia held off Russia 64-62 to capture the gold medal.
Alexis still looks back at the opportunity he had in 1998 as one of the tops in his career, -because of the fact that it was a rare opportunity. Once I heard the opportunity was there, there was no second guessing on my part. Representing your country is a big honor for me and one that I had few opportunities to do. USA Basketball treated us very well, and I was very appreciative of that. It was a great experience."
He's also got some fond memories of his teammates: -I remember Mateen Cleaves' exuberance. He was always upbeat, even when he got hurt and Trajan Langdan came back to replace him, the calmness and coolness of Michael Hawkins in leading the team, David Wood's energy, Jason Sasser always running his mouth. It was a great experience. Every time I look at the game and see Brad Miller I think, â€˜this guy went undrafted, and look where he is now.' It was very humbling and a very good experience overall."
So, yes, USA Basketball did not defend its gold medal at the 1998 World Championship. No, there were no sold-out arenas cheering on Duncan, Hardaway, et al. But looking back at that summer, when you think of all the work put into preparing for the world's best, to lose just two games by two points each and stand on the podium after all the naysayers predicted a complete debacle for the USA that summer, that is a great success story. After all, is success not measured also by how well a team can come together and work as one?
Just like the little engine that believed it could climb the mountain, this improbable collection of 12 athletes, along with the coaching staff that also included then-Los Angeles Lakers head coach Del Harris and then-University of Illinois head coach Lon Kruger, believed in themselves. They climbed their own mountain, the medal podium, and claimed FIBA World Championship hardware in the process.
-It wasn't the gold, but we have to be thankful," Ashraf Amayta, who parlayed his Southern Illinois experience into a journeyman career in the NBA, CBA and Europe, told reporters following the bronze medal game. -It could have been a lot worse. There were a lot of people who didn't think we'd even be playing for a medal. I feel like we represented the country very well. We kept our character. We kept our poise. I don't think any team we played against could say that we did anything like trash talking or cheap shots."