How USA Basketball became a powerhouse, changed the Olympics and sparked the WNBA

How USA Basketball became a powerhouse, changed the Olympics and sparked the WNBA

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USA Basketball is celebrating 50 years of existence this year, which is hard to believe.

“Fifty years is amazing,” said Diana Taurasi, one of the greatest USA Basketball athletes ever.

No, the wonder isn’t in the American basketball governing body’s staying power.

The U.S. women’s national team has won seven consecutive Olympic golds and hasn’t lost a game since 2006; the men’s national team is four-time defending Olympic champs. USAB has a four-year budget of $100 million, the largest of any country’s basketball federation, with the NBA and Nike as its two biggest business partners.

The question is: How is this year, 2024, only 50 years for USAB?

Didn’t the U.S. men win every Olympic gold in basketball from 1936 in Berlin, where it was first added as an Olympic sport, through 1968? With players such as Bill Russell and the Big O and The Logo? Isn’t that, you know, way more than 50 years?

“It’s a pretty complicated but interesting history,” said Craig Miller, who spent 31 years as communications director for USA Basketball and was hired in 1990, two years before the “Dream Team.”

As far as anniversaries go, the one USA Basketball is commemorating this year is not only one of bureaucracy but also of convenience. The entity, headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo., was formed in 1974. Articles of incorporation were filed in 1975 and its name was changed to USA Basketball in 1989.

This also happens to be an Olympic year, and a high-profile one, with the 2024 Games set for Paris, a Dream Team-ish men’s roster anticipated and the women aiming to set an Olympic record with an eighth consecutive gold. Thursday marks 50 days from the opening ceremony on the River Seine.

So, yeah, now is a good time for USAB to celebrate 50 years, with not only those two gold medals up for grabs in men’s and women’s traditional hoops, but also in the three-on-three game — known as 3×3, where the American women are defending champs and the men are gold-medal contenders.

Up through the 1972 Olympics, the Amateur Athletic Union, or the AAU, took responsibility for selecting U.S. players for international competitions (women’s basketball was not an Olympic sport until 1976). But the AAU had splintered throughout the 1960s, and FIBA ultimately stripped the organization of its authority and ordered a unification with its rivals.


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In 1974, that new group formed and was recognized by FIBA, under a mouthful of a name: the Amateur Basketball Association of the USA. That name remained through the 1988 Olympics, when another aggressive action by FIBA would change basketball in America and around the world.

Following the direction of secretary general Boris Stankovic, FIBA members voted to allow “professional” players into Olympic tournaments.

“The United States voted against it, by the way,” said Russ Granik, former deputy NBA commissioner under the late David Stern, who also served as executive director for USA Basketball from 1996-2000.

Through the ’88 Games, in which the U.S. men, with college players, won bronze, and the U.S. women, led by stars who played professionally overseas, won gold, “pros” were not allowed in FIBA-sponsored events — Olympics included. The catch? Pro leagues in some European and South American countries were considered “club sports,” so their players were still classified as amateurs.

The NBA was just beginning to see a small influx of foreign players, and those countries wanted their athletes to be able to represent them at the Olympics (against the Eastern European countries taking advantage of the “club sport” loophole).

Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt led the ABA of the USA, in the late 1980s, and as Granik said, Gavitt cast a “no” vote because colleges didn’t want to lose influence. But Gavitt, who died in 2011, also knew the rule change would pass — which it did, overwhelmingly — and had already approached the NBA about a merger.

The ball was then in the NBA’s court. Stern, with Granik advising him, had to decide if: 1) The NBA would allow its players (who were under contract) to participate in FIBA events; and 2) If the answer to the first question was “yes,” what that might look like for Team USA?

“We decided, and we went to our NBA owners to get approval, that if we were going to do this, we were going to do it absolutely as good as we could and put the absolute best NBA team on the floor,” Granik said.

The NBA’s involvement meant serious changes were on the way, beginning with a new name and logo. Granik said Gavitt was already working on a name change, and “USA Basketball” replaced ABA of the USA.

The process for picking players for U.S. teams also changed. The NBA — namely Stern, Granik and Rod Thorn, then the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations — insisted on picking the team, and Granik was given a seat on the new USA Basketball executive committee.

It was time to build the Dream Team.

Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen

Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing celebrate during the 1992 Olympic gold-medal game against Croatia in Barcelona. The “Dream Team” helped take international men’s basketball to a new level. (John Gaps / AP)

“We always got the same answer from every player,” Granik said, “which was, ‘You know, I am a little skeptical, but if you can put together the kind of team you’re talking about’ … nobody wanted to be the only great player on the team. But they all said, ‘If you can really put together a team of the very best players, I’m in.’”

Granik said he and Thorn made the recruiting calls to the biggest NBA stars. Thorn made the call to Michael Jordan, easily the biggest basketball star on the planet. As former general manager of the Chicago Bulls, Thorn drafted Jordan in 1984.

“Rod spoke to Mike and came back and told me, ‘Michael’s on board if all these other guys we mentioned are on board, but he doesn’t want anybody to know about it for a while,’” Granik said. “Then we had some serious difficulty in working out things with sponsors, but Michael, from Day One, I was advised, was always ready to play.”

The challenges in creating the Dream Team, which had not only Jordan, but fellow megastars Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen, were not just in the recruitment.

The NBA needed to take care of its sponsors and prevent companies that had not partnered with the league from forging an appearance of a relationship by sponsoring the Dream Team. Fifteen global brands paid USA Basketball $1 million each to be called an official sponsor, according to this 1992 report by the Los Angeles Times.

USAB also needed to dramatically upgrade its travel, lodging, and security accommodations for a team that no longer consisted of college players. It had to navigate its own agreements with apparel companies while its new, star players (such as Jordan) had personal sponsorships through Nike.

Change was also needed for the U.S. women’s team. But at the time of the Dream Team launch in 1992, there were no women’s professional leagues in the U.S. Coincidentally, while the Dream Team instantly restored the U.S. men as, unquestionably, the best international program in the sport, the U.S. women finished a disappointing third at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.

When they were third again in 1994, this time at the FIBA world championship, USA Basketball identified a problem.

“The feeling after we didn’t win those two times was that we just didn’t spend enough time together, that those players really didn’t know each other,” said Carol Callan, former U.S. women’s national team director. “There was a gnashing of teeth that the powers that be wanted to make sure that that wasn’t going to happen again.”

Prior to 1995, Callan sat on, and even chaired, USAB’s selection committee for women’s teams. But after consecutive bronze medals in major international competitions, Callan said, USAB and the NBA partnered to create a national “program” on the women’s side. It included hiring Callan to a full-time job in Colorado Springs. In her new role, she flew to Russia during the Goodwill Games to ask American pro players if they would be interested in forgoing their salaries overseas to train year-round with USAB.

The NBA had agreed to provide funding for the training, and beyond that, two professional leagues were in the works in the U.S. — the American Basketball League and the WNBA.

“At the time it was like, ‘There is no guarantee you’ll be on the Olympic team, but obviously there will be some preparations to get to that point,’” Callan recalled of her pitch to players. “There was a positive response from the players. The NBA was interested in the marketing of it and to see as a test case how that would go. And USA Basketball was interested in doing the things necessary to invest time and energy in becoming a better team.”

American women have not lost an Olympic game since.

Diana Taurasi

“We don’t look at it as a four-year thing,” says Diana Taurasi, member of five U.S. Olympic gold-medal teams. “We look at it as a career.” (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

Beginning with the 1996 Atlanta Olympic cycle, the U.S. women’s program has never wavered from a formula of periodic team training throughout the year, and for its top players to appear, year after year, in both Olympic and FIBA competitions.

“I just think we take this really seriously,” said Taurasi, who will play for her sixth Olympic gold this summer and also has competed in four World Cups, winning three. “We don’t look at it as a four-year thing. We look at it as a career.”

There have been a few bumps to navigate for USA Basketball, more so on the men’s side, where a few factors — the proliferation of basketball around the world, sparked by the Dream Team, that has created much stiffer competition, and occasional apathy by American NBA players chief among them — led to disappointments at the 2004 Olympics, and FIBA World Cups in 2019 and 2023.

But with the Paris Olympics on the horizon, USA Basketball is ranked No. 1 in the world for men and women at every level (high school, college, and pro), and No. 2 for both men and women in 3×3.

USAB’s biggest revenue stream, derived from a licensing and marketing agreement with the NBA, is worth millions annually, including $15.5 million in 2021 for the previous Olympics, and is up for renewal at year’s end.

Nike, USA Basketball’s exclusive apparel and shoe provider since 2006, is part of that marketing agreement between USAB and the NBA, and separately is the sponsor of the American federation’s youth program that includes an expansive coach licensing and education curriculum and numerous local tournaments.

USA Basketball fields national teams that compete not only in Olympics and World Cups, but also grueling, lower-profile World Cup qualifying tournaments, the AmeriCup and Pan American Games. At the amateur level, the U.S. competes in U19 and U17 World Cups, FIBA Americas championships for U18 and U16 age groups, the Youth Olympics and co-hosts the Nike Hoop Summit. It also has an expansive 3×3 program.

In 2022, according to the latest available public records, USA Basketball spent about $14 million on its youth program, 3×3 program, and for the women’s national team, which dominated the FIBA World Cup in Australia that September.

“Most people recognize us for the high-profile athletes and how we do at FIBA and the Olympics, but we’re so much more than that,” said Jim Tooley, USAB’s chief executive officer since 2001. “There are many faces of USA Basketball.”

Fifty years’ worth and counting.

The Athletic’s Ben Pickman contributed to this story



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(Top illustration: Daniel Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Tim Clayton / Corbis / Getty Images, David Madison / Getty Images)

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