Kobe Bryant, a few months before he died, made an appearance at the Basketball World Cup in China and was asked about the future of USA Basketball.
His message was clear: Gold medals will no longer come easily.
“It’s not a matter of the rest of the world catching up to the U.S.,” Bryant said. “It’s that the rest of the world has been caught up for quite some time.”
He wasn’t wrong. The U.S. finished seventh at that World Cup, the worst finish ever by an American men’s team at a major international tournament. Now comes a chance for redemption, with the U.S. heading to the delayed Tokyo Games in search of a fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal.
The Americans — coached by Gregg Popovich — will be led by Kevin Durant, seeking his third Olympic gold, and have past gold medalists Kevin Love and Draymond Green back on the roster as well. The rest are Olympic first-timers, including Phoenix’s Devin Booker, Miami’s Bam Adebayo and Portland’s Damian Lillard.
“We’ll find out after the Olympics just how far people have come or didn’t come,” USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said. “We’re looking forward to it.”
There will be no shortage of legitimate medal hopefuls in the 12-team field: The U.S. tops the list, of course, but Spain, Australia, France and Argentina are among the other nations that can make strong cases as to why they’ll reach the top of the podium in Tokyo.
Spain is the reigning World Cup champion. France knocked the Americans out of medal contention at that World Cup. Argentina has tons of experience, and Australia has been on the cusp of what it believes is an international breakthrough for some time.
“There’s a goal of trying to win a gold medal for Australia, which we’ve never done — or trying to win a medal, which we’ve never done,” Australia guard Joe Ingles of the Utah Jazz said. “That’s something that’s been a goal of mine since I made the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and we haven’t been able to do it.”