Not since a controversial 1972 final in which the Soviet Union defeated the US men on the third attempt to play the final three seconds have American and Russian men faced a one-game showdown for Olympic basketball gold.
And not since the 1976 debut of Olympic women’s basketball, when the Soviets defeated the US women for gold, have US and Russian women met in a Games final.
But US-Russia Olympic finals are possible this weekend for men’s and women’s gold medals, potentially pitting a month-old US NBA team against Russian men that have been together seven years and the reigning European women’s champion against a four-time defending Olympic champion on a 39-game Olympic win streak.
“Imagine that,” US NBA Olympic star Kobe Bryant said of a US-Russia men’s final. “That would be something special. That would be incredible.”
The unbeaten US men face Australia in a Wednesday quarterfinal while the top-seeded Russians go against regional rival Lithuania.
On the women’s side, the US will face Australia in a Thursday semifinal while Russia will play unbeaten France in the other semifinal ahead of Saturday’s gold medal game.
The rivalry, like the Cold War, has thawed since the 1972 Munich Olympic final when the Soviet team was given three chances to win due to what were called timekeeping errors.
The US silver medals from that first-ever American Olympic basketball defeat remain with the International Olympic Committee, US players refusing to accept them, feeling they were robbed of rightful gold.
“I like the win in ’72,” said Russian NBA standout Andrei Kirilenko.
“Right now, it’s a different time. Then it was a communist time. Right now, everybody is playing together. Some Americans play in Russia. Some Russians play in America. It doesn’t really go into politics.”
But it does go into the proud history of two proud sporting nations.
In fact, it was a Soviet victory over a US collegiate squad in a 1988 Seoul Olympics semifinal that prompted USA Basketball to join forces with the NBA and create the original Dream Team for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and teammates brought global attention to the sport and set the stage for US teams to win 1996 and 2000 gold but the world caught up and in a shock fall the Americans could muster only bronze in 2004.
The led to a revamped US program that has lost only in the 2006 world semifinals and is a clear favorite at London, having scored an Olympic record 156 points in a victory over Nigeria.
“I think the US team is the best, but in one particular [game] anything could happen, as we have shown,” Kirilenko said. “Every night is different. One night you can have 156 points. A different night you could start missing.”
Russian coach David Blatt, an American, has built a program for years and a golden showdown against his homeland’s Dream Team could be just what all the work has been building toward.
“This is a group that’s been together for a while. I’ve been here seven years and most of the players have been with me during the whole process,” Blatt said.
“This is a new Russia. It’s a different day. It’s a different age. The political climate has changed drastically and that’s trickling down into sports and slowly but surely we’re becoming part of that inner circle of well-known and respected teams.”
Imagine the respect they would get for stunning a Dream Team in the final.
“I don’t care if we’re under the radar or over the radar,” Kirilenko said.
“We play hard. We help each other. That’s how we keep grinding those wins.
“If we want to be the best, you have to beat the best.” — AFP