If you had offered me a bronze medal before the tournament, I'd have bitten your hand off, which makes what happened in the last couple of games so heartbreaking. But let's go from the start.
Australian basketball has been in a funny place for a number of years now. Always consistently solid performers with a decent level of raw talent to worry the bigger teams. Did you know that Melbourne is tied for first with Chicago for No. 1 NBA draft picks born in the one city (Andrew Bogut, Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons)? The main problem has been that, outside of a particularly hardcore NBA and basketball following, the sport just wasn't that popular in Australia. Coverage was (and largely still is) weak, with 2-3 live NBA games being broadcast per week to a national audience (if you have pay TV and ESPN Australia/NZ). To many Australians, basketball was just another funny sport the Americans invented so they could be good at something.
It wasn't always like that, though. The 1990s were widely considered to be the golden generation of basketball this country has ever seen, with the rise of legends like Andrew Gaze, the booming popularity of the NBL and a rising fan base. But poor investment and management meant that the interest dwindled away until only the hardcore dregs remained.
Until 2 years ago.
When Dante Exum was drafted into the NBA with the 5th overall pick in 2014, basketball in Australia was back. Here was the first of the new golden age, with a glamorous pipeline to follow him. Sure, Andrew Bogut going No. 1, the rise of Patty Mills and Aron Baynes with the Spurs, and Matthew Dellavedova with the Cavaliers, had piqued interest, but here was someone projected to be a genuine star.
Dante Exum is just one of a number of Australian players who is the by-product of the NBL's (Australia's national league) booming period in the 1990s, born to an American plying his trade in Australia, who eventually decided to settle in the land down under. Ben Simmons and Jonah Bolden are also cut from this cloth, while Kyrie Irving's father Drederick decided to return home to New Jersey.
But Simmons, Exum and Bolden (who just recently left UCLA to sign in Europe before probably declaring for the 2017 draft) are a different type of player to the prototypical Australian player (think Matthew Dellavedova). They combine the Australian tenets of hard play, teamwork and unselfishness with American athleticism and talent, creating a tidal wave of new momentum for the sport as people get interested again.
The Olympics was supposed to be the crowning glory of it all.
Australia, before the Olympics, was ranked 11th in the world in men's basketball, and had never medaled at the Olympic Games, going 0-3 in bronze medal games (1 loss vs. USA, 2 vs. Lithuania). Despite Ben Simmons understandably committing to the Sixers over the Olympics at the young age of 20, and Dante Exum blowing out his knee playing for Australia 12 months ago, this team had large expectations of themselves.
They didn't just want to medal, they were hunting gold.
Despite key absences like Simmons and Exum, this team was still brimming with established stars. Besides the NBA representation of Dellavedova, Mills, Bogut, Joe Ingles, Aron Baynes and Cameron Bairstow (now signed with the Brisbane Bullets), there were European stars Ryan Broekhoff (summer league with Denver), Brock Motum (summer league with Utah), David Anderson (spent time in NBA with New Orleans and Toronto) and American-turned-Aussie Kevin Lisch (naturalized through playing in NBL since 2009).
This team expected to medal.
And they started excellently, putting France to the sword quite easily in their first group game before outlasting Serbia by 15 points in a closer contest than the final score appeared. Momentum was building, excitement palpable, as not only were the wins strong, the style of play was borderline sexual to watch. Andrew Bogut functioning as a high-post playmaker, fizzing backdoor passes to cutting Patty Mills and Joe Ingles. Matthew Dellavedova leading the tournament in assists. Patty Mills scoring ridiculous threes.
Then the test they wanted came, a showdown with the USA.
And boy did they show up. It only took the efforts of Olympic Melo, a god among mere mortals, for the USA to hold on to an unconvincing 10 point victory, after Australia made life exceptionally difficult for them by being physical, utilizing swift ball and player movement, and hitting open shots.
Two irrelevant wins over pool minnows China and Venezuela meant Australia would finish 4-1 in group play, 2nd in Pool A, and set up a showdown with the Olympic nemesis, No. 3 world-ranked Lithuania, owners of NBAers Jonas Valanciunas and Mindaugas Kuzminskas.
Turns out it wouldn't matter. The Boomers would go on to trounce Lithuania 90-64 and set up a rematch with Pool A foe Serbia, who had outlasted Croatia in a tight quarter final.
Now before I go any further, I'll just highlight the fact that there is no Baynes analysis thus far because he was largely awful in the Olympics. He was asked to play the power forward spot next to Bogut, and largely be a space eater inside, which he did quite well. But the return of the lobster claws was apparent and painful, and poor Viking Aron couldn't catch or finish anything inside.
But anyway, back to the tournament... Serbia had an advantage here that the other teams hadn't gotten. Sure, you can do all the film analysis you want, but Serbia had previously been killed by the Aussies' backdoor cuts and rapid movement, and therefore could prepare.
And prepare they did. A stifling defensive performance limited scoring savant Patty Mills to 13 points on 6-16 shooting, while Matthew Dellavedova faltered with 3 points and 2 assists. It was worse for Andrew Bogut, who grabbed all of one single rebound in his 22 minutes on the court. Milos Teodosic proved a wizard for Serbia as they cruised to a 26-point rout, with the point guard, largely acknowledged as one of the best players not in the NBA, scoring 22 points on 9-14 shooting with a mid-range barrage on top of five assists.
That relegated Australia to the bronze medal game, a matchup against No. 2 ranked Spain, brimming with NBA talent in the form of Nikola Mirotic, Pau Gasol, Ricky Rubio and Sergio Rodriguez. And the game didn't start all that well, with the Boomers falling to as much as a 12-point deficit in the first half before a 10-0 run saw them close the half down 40-38.
The second half was absolutely ridiculous.
From memory, the lead didn't stretch beyond about 3-4 points either way for the whole half, with the lead changing hands 12 times in the final quarter alone. Patty Mills and Pau Gasol were putting on a scoring show, the two San Antonio Spurs scoring 30 and 31 points respectively as the game entered the final minute with Australia up 86-85.
Then the heartbreak began.
Our man Aron was called for a fairly soft pushing foul on Pau Gasol, allowing the 36-year-old Spaniard, who had struggled with his free throws all game, to calmly sink two to put Spain up 87-86.
THEN ARON BAYNES HIT A HOOK SHOT!!!
It was bedlam in the Quagliata household at 2:15am when Aron Baynes caught the ball in his clay hands, gyrated on gelatinous hips and chunked the ball over his shoulder, calling bank on every possible part of the rim before the ball fell, putting Australia up 88-87.
Cue plunging knife into chest cavity.
Sergio Rodriguez, bound for Philadelphia this coming season, drove the lane. He was confronted by his primary defender, a back-pedaling Patty Mills, arms raised. Rodriguez stumbles, falls, and tosses up a lame flip shot that rolls off the front of the rim before being batted away.
A foul is called on Patty Mills for blocking, and the entire Australian team wheels around in amazement and disbelief. Head coach Andrej Lemanis is perplexed, the bench dumbfounded, a certain Pistons writer fuming. Sergio Rodriguez had just been bailed out by a referee looking to make his mark on the game.
The decisive foul on Sergio Rodriguez in Spain vs Australia, foul or not foul? https://t.co/2HVJo343C7— Sportando (@Sportando) August 21, 2016
You can make up your own opinion on this one, but to me it seems pretty obvious. Spaniards, understandably, will point to the fact that Rodriguez appears to hit Mills' right leg. I call bullshit to the highest power. A man already off balance does not deserve this call. Contact is minimal, Spain is bailed out, Rodriguez hits two clutch free throws, Australia can't get a shot off in the ensuing five seconds and are robbed of their first ever Olympic medal, crashing to 0-4 in bronze medal games.
FWIW, the majority of talking heads and neutral observers seem to observe the call as weak and wrong, so, small comforts.
But all is not lost for Australian basketball. The team themselves had high expectations, but they were still only 11th in the world. It can be said that the best is yet to come. When you can add in Ben Simmons, Dante Exum and Thon Maker to this program, along with a host of promising young players like Jonah Bolden, Dejan Vasiljevic (University of Miami), Harry Froling (SMU), Deng Adel (Louisville), Isaac Humphries (Kentucky) and Tom Wilson (SMU), and a medal is surely in the country's near future.
Aron Baynes finished Olympic play averaging 9.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists.