* Editor’s Note: Australia led Team USA 54–49 at halftime before falling to the Americans 98–88 on Wednesday. The Aussies gave USA its toughest test of the Rio Olympics and set the stage for another meeting during the knockout rounds.
RIO DE JANEIRO — Back in mid-February, the biggest basketball stars in the world were wandering around freezing-cold Toronto during NBA All-Star Weekend. Meanwhile, the biggest basketball stars in Australia were on a boat in San Diego.
Now that group is in Rio, and it represents the country’s best shot ever at a medal in basketball. The Boomers—Australia’s name for its hoops national team—are 2–0 in Olympic play thus far. They opened the Games by upsetting France last Saturday afternoon, and they rallied against a surprisingly tough Serbian team to win by 15 on Monday.
“You never know what you got,” assistant coach Luc Longley says of the team’s start. “There’s no proof till you get the pudding. Two games, two hard games against two quality oppositions.... This is a good turnout.”
Wednesday night they’ll play Team USA. A reporter asks whether it’s even possible for Australia to win. “It’s always possible, mate,” Longley says. “Strange things can happen. No impossibilities in basketball. But obviously we’re the underdogs. We play hard, and we’ll go from there.”
The Boomers probably won’t win Wednesday, but they will definitely give the Americans the best test they’ve had all summer. And if nothing else, Wednesday’s game is a good excuse to appreciate how far Australia has come. It’s a story with a few different chapters.
The Andrew Bogut Effect
Bogut shouldn’t even be here. He missed the second half of the Finals with knee injury, and at the time, it was expected to cost him the Olympics, too. “I’m not great at math,” he said in June. “But six to eight weeks minimum is what I’ve been told. [Rio] is very unlikely at this point, to be honest.”
After a fractured ankle kept him out of London in 2012, that news meant Bogut would miss his second straight Olympics. Then he had to watch the Warriors lose the Finals. Then they traded him to clear room for Kevin Durant. “The way the whole thing went,” Bogut told reporters this week, “it wasn’t great mentally and physically. But those things happen. The reason we’re professional athletes with million-dollar contracts is you gotta deal with that. You gotta step it up and go onto the next thing.”
“He’s done a hell of a lot of work,” says Matthew Dellavedova. “When I saw him go down I didn’t think he’d be playing [in Rio]. I was disappointed for him and for the group. He’s just put in a ton of work around the clock, icing, getting treatment, just giving himself a chance to be here. I know how much it means to him put on the green and gold.”
Bogut’s rehab this summer was more about his country than the NBA, and he’s honest about this. “If I wanted to get in the best shape to be ready for the season,” he says, “I wouldn't have played.”
Now that he’s here, he looks rejuvenated. He was dunking on people against France, he’s blocking shots like always and he’s been the focal point of the offense. Wednesday’s game against Team USA will also mean a reunion for Bogut and his old Warriors teammates. He’s looking forward to it.
“Those are guys I'll always have a friendship with,” he says. “You win a championship with guys, you always remember.” Plus: “I mean, Harrison’s still my teammate, so we’re good.”
Even if he’s not a Warrior anymore—Harrison Barnes is his Maverick teammate now—watching Bogut on Australia is its own tribute to how valuable he was in Golden State. When he arrived in the Bay Area in 2011, he set the tone on the court and in the locker room. It helped the franchise reinvent itself. And everything Bogut did for the Warriors, he’s done for Australia.
He anchors the team on the court and mentors teammates, and he started a development academy for teenagers in Australia. This summer’s rehab was just another example. “It’s a testament to how much he cares,” Longley says. “The other guys see him. They see a guy worth X-million dollars, old guy, nothing to prove in some ways, putting himself on the line and playing hard. That does wonders for these kids.”
“I think a lot of people don’t see us in this light,” Bogut says. “They see us, you know, 82 games. Sometimes the games become mundane. This is a different feeling.”
Aussie All-Star Weekend
Patty Mills was supposed to be in Hawaii over All-Star weekend with Spurs teammate Boris Diaw. He canceled it when “something came up” with the national team. He had to go to San Diego. “It was really cool,” Mills told me in April. “We have seven Aussies in the NBA. We grew up playing together. So to be able to go and just hang out, nothing to do with basketball, it’s pretty sweet.”
This anecdote is a reminder that Australians have a full-on NBA fraternity at this point. Beyond Bogut and Mills, the trip also featured Dante Exum, Cameron Bairstow, Dellavedova, Aaron Baynes and Joe Ingles. There are as many NBA championship rings on the Australian national team (four) as there are on Team USA.
“A lot of us play in the NBA,” Baynes says. “So you know, we’re up against it night in and night out. We have guys who are in high levels in Europe. We're not intimidated at all.”
Over the past few years, they’ve all broken through together, and they all seem as thrilled with any countryman’s success as their own. As Ingles says of Dellavedova, “He went from, what? Three years ago barely making the team, last year starting in the Finals, winning one the year after. He’s getting what he deserves.” Meanwhile, Delly will deflect defensive praise onto his big men: “It helps when you’ve got guys like Bogut and Baynes talking behind you.”
It all translates to the court. You get Delly flying around in the backcourt, Baynes stealing backdoor buckets, Ingles hitting from the perimeter, Bogut finishing alley-oops, and then Mills, who can close out games when teams get tired of chasing Delly. Together, it’s a handful.
And as Mills explained after Australia dominated France: “We understand each other’s games because we get along off the court. I think whatever clicked on the court, that’s just the backend of everything that happened before.” Bogut is more blunt: “We don't have guys on this team [saying], Oh, I need 20 shots a game, I’m the man over here. That’s when you get in trouble with national teams.”
Before the Olympics, Mills took the entire team—sans a rehabbing Bogut—on a motivational trip to Ayers Rock, or Uluru, a sacred aboriginal site that’s 600 million years old. It’s also in the dead center of Australia, which was not an accident.
“The stuff we do,” Mills said this week, “those little things gave us a deeper meaning of why we play for Australia. For each other. It just gives everyone a bit more meaning behind what we’re actually trying to achieve here.”
“We were playing badly,” Longley says after Australia’s comeback win over Serbia. “Getting bullied out of our stuff. And we didn’t need to do much coaching. The guys took care of it themselves. That’s the chemistry. That’s the trips to San Diego on the All-Star Break, that’s the trips to Uluru. All those things are incremental.”
The Boomer Future
In 1991, Longley became the first Australian NBA player in history. When Sydney hosted the Olympics in 2000, Andrew Gaze was a long-running star in Melbourne, but Longley was still the only NBA player. But then Bogut came along, others followed, and now it’s all very different. “It’s been a lot of fun to watch,” Longley said this week. “We have a culture of professional basketball in Australia now.”
It’s not going anywhere. Former Jazz lottery pick Dante Exum stayed home after injuring his knee last summer, but he should be available in 2020. Thon Maker should be around as well. And thinking about the future, I keep going back to something Ingles said about Bogut:
“We just try to keep looking inside. We’re a really good team when we look inside and play out of [Bogut]. Best big passer in the NBA, probably in the world. They all move because you know he's gonna pass the ball. The more the ball's in his hands, the better for us."
Doesn’t that sound like a perfect role for Ben Simmons?
If Bogut was the No. 1 pick that helped legitimize Australian basketball, Simmons could be the full-fledged superstar No. 1 pick who weaponizes all this. Look at the international landscape in 2016, and there’s a vacuum of star power. While Spain struggles (0–2 so far in Rio), France sleepwalks and Argentina’s aging ’04 nucleus tries to make a final run 12 years later ... the field is wide open. There are two countries that are actively improving. One is Canada, but it couldn’t qualify for the Olympics this summer. The other is Australia.
“They’re tough,” Team USA assistant Tom Thibodeau says of Australia’s progress. “They’re experienced. You’re gonna have to play both sides of the ball well. Just the way they run their program, what’s happened there is tremendous. It’s great for the game. It says a lot about ’em.”
With Simmons and Exum looming for 2020, whatever happens in Rio may be just the beginning. Until then, there’s Wednesday. The Americans are the team on the boat now, and Longley’s asked how he’ll prepare. He laughs and shakes his head. “Thoroughly,” he says.
“If we go out there to compete,” Bogut says, “win or lose, I'll be happy with that. If we go out there and we’re intimidated, trying to get our shoes signed before the game and a signed jersey, we’re in the wrong mind-set. I’ve been on teams in the past where guys are asking for shoes before games and stuff.”
I don’t think he’s on that team anymore.