Why the U.S. must win Olympic basketball gold at London 2012
POSTED: Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - 7:00pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, June 5, 2012 - 7:04pm
SPORTS NEWS (CNN) — For the elite basketball stars of the NBA and WNBA, winning Olympic gold is a given. Silver is for the losers.
The U.S. men's team has been champion 13 out of 16 times since 1936. American women have topped the podium six out of eight.
"Second place is unacceptable," says legendary center Hakeem Olajuwon, who was in the U.S. "Dream Team" that topped the podium in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
With teammates such as Shaquille O'Neal, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen, the Nigerian-American, who was born in Lagos, quickly came to realize that reality.
"Coming to the United States, being there for so long, then it becomes -- you are expected to win gold," he told CNN's Aiming for Gold show.
Olajuwon, who is rated one of the greatest 50 NBA players of all time, came into the Atlanta Games having helped Houston Rockets win back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and 1995.
While he enjoyed winning Olympic gold, the sheer fame of the Dream Team left them surrounded by an all-pervading security presence and he felt he missed out on the Games experience.
"We can't go anywhere -- we weren't even free to go to the (athletes') village. So it was a different experience from that perspective.
"The opening day you get all the different athletes but after that, of course, for security issues the Dream Team were by themselves."
But he added: "The Olympic gold medal is a huge accomplishment and so is my career with NBA basketball. I'm just happy that I get the opportunity to accomplish both."
Olajuwon retired in 2002 but is still involved in the game, acting as a mentor for the likes of current superstars LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
Argentina's Luis Scola followed in Olajuwan's footsteps at Houston Rockets and to the top of the Olympic podium.
The Nightmare Team
The forward center achieved the feat at the 2004 Games in Athens, on the way beating a U.S. lineup which acquired the unfortunate label of "The Nightmare Team."
It was a stunning upset, but proof that the rest of the world had raised their standards to match America's NBA elite.
"I take a lot of pride in the gold medal because of the whole experience that happened behind it," he told CNN.
"When you talk to somebody here in the U.S. and they find out you played in the Olympics and they are like, 'Wow, the Olympics?' 'Yeah.' 'How did you do?' 'We won it.' They are stunned, they cannot believe it really."
U.S. basketball chiefs were sufficiently stunned to revamp its organization and coaching staff so by the 2008 Olympics in Beijing traditional dominance had been restored.
Scola and his Argentina teammates took the bronze medal in China.
He will be in an Argentina squad attempting to cause another upset at the 2012 Olympics in London, but believes U.S. success is almost inevitable.
"There are three big sports here: baseball, American football and basketball. Basketball is really the only one that's played in the Olympics. So I think that plays a role too.
"There's a lot of talent in the U.S., a lot of talent. There's 10 different teams you can pick players from and that will be a very good team and eventually you can win a medal or a gold medal, no question about that."
For WNBA legend Lisa Leslie, defeat at the Olympics just wasn't an option. She played in four Games and won four golds with an all-conquering U.S. squad from 1996 to 2008.
"I really loved that moment of being on the podium and having the gold medal placed around my neck, just listening to the chants and listening to our national anthem -- that always gives me chills," she told CNN.
"That was my favorite sports moment."
Boosted by her record 488 points, 241 rebounds and 36 blocked shots in Olympic competition, Leslie and her teammates had a remorseless winning attitude.
"Our main goal was one game at a time, one country, one goal, and that's to win a gold medal."
Leslie, who retired from the Los Angeles Sparks in 2009, will go down in history as the first woman to complete a slam dunk in a professional game.
The six foot five inch center achieved the feat in 2002 and went on to make it her trademark during a glittering career.