By Scott Malone
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – With the United States’ men’s and women’s basketball teams having dominated the Olympic tournament for more than two decades, the main battle should be for second on the hardwood when the first game tips off in Rio on Saturday.
The U.S.’s deep bench of professional National Basketball Association players has only once failed to deliver gold in the men’s event since 1992, missing out in 2004 to Argentina. Even with some top stars staying away this year due to concerns about Zika and injuries, the men’s team are heavily favored.
But Carmelo Anthony, a 32-year-old New York Knicks forward whose Olympic debut ended with that loss to Argentina, said the team will take nothing for granted.
“I know what it felt like to be at the bottom and what it feels like to be at the top of the game as well,” said Anthony, a nine-time NBA All-Star.
The U.S. women’s streak is even longer, with the team winning each of their last 41 Olympic games and every gold medal since 1996. Anything other than a gold this time would be seen as a national disappointment.
“It’s not easy, I know that the scoreboards make it look like it is, but these games are not easy,” said Sue Bird, the 35-year-old American point guard and three-time gold medalist. “Every country we play, especially at the very beginning of the game, they always come out with guns blazing.”
In the men’s competition, NBA experience is not be limited to the U.S. team. A record 47 active NBA players, spread across many countries, will compete.
Spain, who won silver in 2008 and 2012, have five NBA stars including Paul Gasol of the Chicago Bulls, a six-time league All-Star. Argentina, who upset the U.S. to win the gold in 2004, boast three NBA players including two-time NBA All-Star Manu Ginobili, a member of that gold-medal team.
Australia, Brazil and France also have large NBA contingents.
On the women’s side, Australia have proved the United States’ most consistent rivals, with a podium spot in every Olympics since 1996. Australia’s team features 203 cm (6 foot 8 inch) center Liz Cambage, a 24-year-old who in her 2012 Olympic debut became the first woman to perform a one-handed slam dunk, in a preliminary game against Russia.
(Reporting by Scott Malone, editing by Neil Robinson)