It’s amazing what invincibility feels like.
Few sportsman step out on court and feel unbeatable but when it came to Olympics basketball that was exactly how those wearing the stars and stripes of the United States felt.
After taking bronze in Seoul in 1998 there was to be a change in tact. Go pro. Take the NBA’s biggest names for Barcelona 1992. Think Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird among what was dubbed the ‘Dream Team’ roster.
Gary Payton (second from right) posed alongside Muhammad Ali during the 1996 Olympics
Payton was part of the ‘Dream Team III’ that won gold at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta
Jordan and Co won all eight games played by an average of 43.8 points and they are, to this day, considered the greatest team to play basketball.
Gary Payton, who was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics, watched on like the rest of the nation and was left mesmerised at the level of skill on one roster. This went beyond the annual All-Star Game.
Four years on and there was Payton, nicknamed ‘The Glove’ in his heyday for his elite defence, on the Olympic roster in Atlanta.
For Oakland-born Payton that Games was as much about winning gold as it was about carrying the torch for the ’92 team. He for sure wasn’t going to be remembered as the team that ruined a dynasty.
‘When we got ready to go to the basketball game we were going to just try and dominate the game and make sure we didn’t let down what the ’92 team did and how dominant they were,’ Payton told Sportsmail.
Payton insisted the mindset of going to the Games (seen here in 2000) was continuing legacy
1996 DREAM TEAM III
‘That’s what we did. Our coach was Lenny Wilkens, he preached that every day and every night. We are not going to let them down. If they won by 30, we are going to have to win by 30. That’s what we did. We went in there with that mindset.
‘We went in there and dominated. As soon as you stepped on the floor in our mind we were the best athletes, the best team and the best country in the world. That’s what we did every night we stepped on the floor.’
A number of the NBA’s biggest stars won’t be in Tokyo for this latest go-round, the likes of LeBron James, Steph Curry, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard are among the stars who, for myriad reasons including injury, will play no part.
But when asked if the draw to play at an Olympics and to represent Team USA still holds weight among the basketball cognoscenti, Payton takes a moment of reflection.
‘I get asked this a lot and I always say, it should be a great honour for me to sit on a pedestal or a podium, bow my head down and they put a gold medal around my neck, because as we look at it, there are a lot of people in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq that are protecting us with US uniforms on,’ he said.
‘They have the patch on their arm and they are getting shot at and blown up and come back with no arms, no leg or don’t come back alive.
The point guard believes it is an ‘honour’ to play for his country and represent the nation
‘They do all that so we can play basketball in a different country and can be honoured for that. They are not getting honoured for that. They get medals but come back with a lot of problems and I think that we should be more appreciative than that, we should always think that.’
But back to ’96 in Atlanta and a squad that saw Payton, fresh off an NBA Finals defeat, alongside Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Reggie Miller, Grant Hill, David Robinson, Mitch Richmond and Anfernee Hardaway.
Defensively they were a sight to behold and it was dominance through to winning gold. The legacy went on. Team USA were two for two since the pros took the baton from the collegiate stars.
‘It’s not like a regular All-Star team,’ Payton interjected as Sportsmail read through the roster.
‘Once I got on the floor we were almost like brothers because we hung like that off the floor. It was an amazing experience to be with those guys.’
Grant Hill goes over plays on the chalkboard as the 1996 Team focused on total domination
TEAM USA BASKETBALL RECORD
1936 (Berlin) = GOLD
1948 (London) = GOLD
1952 (Helsinki) = GOLD
1956 (Melbourne) = GOLD
1960 (Rome) = GOLD
1964 (Tokyo) = GOLD
1968 (Mexico City) = GOLD
1972 (Munich) = SILVER
1976 (Montreal) = GOLD
1980 (Moscow) = *BOYCOTTED*
1984 (Los Angeles) = GOLD
1988 (Seoul) = BRONZE
1992 (Barcelona) = GOLD
1996 (Atlanta) = GOLD
2000 (Sydney) = GOLD
2004 (Athens) = BRONZE
2008 (Beijing) = GOLD
2012 (London) = GOLD
2016 (Rio) = GOLD
2020 (Tokyo) = ???
Four years later Payton went from a new kid on the block of the Games to an elder statesman of a far younger team that was sent across the world to Sydney in 2000.
And it is the grit of that team that Payton believes can prove as inspiration to the current crop, led by Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant.
He explained: ‘We really had to bring everything from down under our hearts to win. There were a lot of games that were really close at that time.’
One ‘close’ game in particular comes to his mind when he thinks of that Sydney Games – the semi-final against Lithuania.
Unlike the ’96 version, this team was being made to work for any shot of a medal and in the last-four encounter against Lithuania there was a collective intake of breath across the Atlantic.
The semi-final was tied at 80-80 with a minute left.
USA were being put on notice and when at 85-83 Jason Kidd missed his second free-throw it was Lithuania, in the final play of the game, that had the chance to win it with a three.
This was Payton’s department, lockdown defence.
Sarunas Jasikevicius grabbed the rebound and raced up the floor with seconds left but his three was short and USA escaped. They progressed and did go on to win gold but the clouds that covered them in Athens 2004 were beginning to form.
‘That was a good challenge for us,’ Payton said.
‘It was good for us to go through that, it was just fortunate they didn’t make the shot! They played us tough, we had a lot of tough games. We had to dig down deep.
‘It’s not always about blowing people out and that’s where the guts came from, that’s where everything showed how good a basketball player we were. You can’t blow people out all the time, it’s not always going to happen. It’s a learning lesson to be ready.
Payton’s message to the current crop is to maintain standards and continue a gold legacy
‘We got away with a win and then went on and won. In the following years we understood we have to be ready for these players. The gap is closing and we have to be better and work on our game.’
And that’s never been truer. When Nigeria and Australia defeated Team USA in two pre-Games exhibition games, many were asking whether to sound the alarm.
It doubled the tally of exhibition defeats since Team USA went pro back in ’92 but when asked if it was a problem, Durant just played it off as ‘practice’ for the real Games, which start this morning against France.
So, what’s the message to Durant, Damian Lillard, Jason Tatum and others pulling on the stars and stripes this time round?
‘It should be a mindset that we have to continue our legacy,’ Payton explains.
‘Don’t let our legacy fall down because if you look eight years from now and it happens we don’t win a medal you don’t want to look back and think we could have done something different. You can’t look back and feel bad.’
This is all about legacy. It may not be a Dream Team but six Gold medals in seven Games shows the standard. It’s win or bust.