Australia’s 45th medal of Tokyo 2020 meant so much more than a singular achievement. For the first time in its history, the men’s basketball team was on the podium at the Olympic Games.
It would have been one of the great ‘where were you…’ sporting moments of the 21st Century – if most Australians were not currently in lockdown and watching on from their lounge-rooms.
After 40 minutes of bruising basketball, the Boomers had defeated a Luka Dončić-led Slovenia 107-93.
To illustrate just how much a medal means to basketball in Australia, this was the fifth time the Boomers had found themselves in the bronze medal match. It was the first they had won.
It’s a string of enduring heartaches dating back to the bronze medal match of Seoul 1988. Andrew Gaze led the Boomers out then, and then again at Atlanta 1996, and finally in front of the home crowd of Sydney 2000 after carrying the flag – plus the expectations of a nation – at the Opening Ceremony.
On all three occasions, Australia fell agonisingly short in the bronze medal match, and walked away as the ‘bridesmaids’ of the competition in fourth place with nothing to show for sensational campaigns.
Rio 2016 felt like the circuit breaker. Once again finding themselves in the bronze medal match – and boasting the ‘Golden Generation’ of men’s basketball in Australia – all signs pointed to ending the hoodoo and creating history.
The Boomers maintained the ascendency over Spain right until the final seconds of that game, but lost the lead when the Spaniards capitalised on a dubious foul call. Those fleeting seconds on the clock evaporated before the Patty Mills-led squad could respond, and they were once again relegated to fourth position at an Olympic Games.
It’s a memory burned deep into the minds of all basketball-loving Australians; a defeat that felt all-consuming.
The fourth-place finish in the 2019 FIBA World Cup just rubbed salt into the wounds for everyone involved with and following the Australian Boomers.
13 years in the making for 12-man squad in 11th campaign
For the leaders of this squad, Tokyo 2020 caps a 13-year rollercoaster to Olympic immortality. For Australia, it has been 65 years and 11 Olympic campaigns in the making since the first men’s basketball team competed – at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne 1956.
Long-time friends and team-mates Patty Mills and Joe Ingles have created the culture on display for all to see since Beijing 2008. Matthew Dellavedova and Aron Baynes were massive contributors from London 2012; all four were shaped through the Australian Institute of Sport pathway and making waves in the NBA.
Andrew Bogut is the fifth member of that nucleus, but retired from international basketball after Tokyo 2020 was delayed by a year. His on-court imprint will still be felt for years to come, from the bold drop coverage on defence to the trusting hand-offs that the big-man would regularly make on offence.
Jock Landale was the man to provide the big-man presence that the squad desperately needed in Bogut’s absence. With Aron Baynes ruled out in the group stage with a severe neck injury, the heavy lifting was left to Landale who shifted from power forward to centre which allowed Nic Kay to enter the starting line-up.
It was a tremendous gift that Matisse Thybulle – who grew up in Australia from the ages of two through nine – found his way onto this team. We can thank former Boomers and Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown for learning about the forward’s dual-citizenship, and necessitating his inclusion for Tokyo 2020.
His 76ers teammate Ben Simmons opted out of the Boomers’ campaign, but the addition of Thybulle gave Australia a unique weapon with his ability to guard the best player of the opposing team every single night.
After spending the previous five games coming off the bench and producing highlight play after highlight play in his starter-like minutes, Thybulle got the start courtesy of head coach Brian Goorjian.
He spent the vast majority of his court-time guarding the offensive juggernaut that is the 22-year-old phenom Luka Dončić.
No one was better equipped to deal with Dončić as a one-on-one defender. His seven-foot wingspan, coupled with natural defensive anticipation and out-of-this-world athleticism makes him the full package when it comes to guarding bigs or smalls.
Team USA’s Jrue Holiday may also lay claim to that mantle, but Thybulle demonstrated over his six-game period with the Boomers that he has the capacity to win multiple NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards in his career, restricting Dončić to seven-of-20 shooting from the field, and three-of-13 from beyond the arc.
He frustrated the 201-centimetre point guard beyond measure, imposing his will on every possession without the in-your-face bravado or off-the-ball attempts to get under the Slovenian’s skin.
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Finally, Patty Mills. The captain of the squad, and the spiritual leader of this group dating back to his debut Olympic Games at Beijing 2008. Mills is at the forefront of what it means to be a Boomer; he connects the present group with the history of Australian basketball and drives them with his vision of what they can become.
Mills is one of the most awe-inspiring Australian sportspeople of the last 10 years. He represents each of the three Australian flags as a proud Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island man. He pioneers the engagement of Aboriginal kids in sports, and is unrelenting in his quest for education and awareness of Indigenous culture.
On Saturday night, Mills decided he wouldn’t die wondering on the basketball court.
If the Boomers were to win or lose, it would be because of him. He proceeded to explode for 42 points, setting the record for the most points scored in a medal-deciding match of the Olympic Games, ever.
He flew off pin downs and double-screens, sending the ball towards the rim off the catch, pull-ups, step-backs, and in transition.
Mills squirmed his way into the paint, beating his defender with hesitations and darting crossovers to the rim. When his opponent started to pre-empt the drive, he would step back and fire off long-range bombs with as much confidence as a free throw.
His performance was breathtakingly legendary. It was the ultimate display of consummate professionalism, determination and passion. He would not rest until the job was done.
It’s fitting that Patty Mills – who delivered Australia its first men’s Olympic Basketball medal – will one day be immortalised in bronze.
This 12-man squad is already immortalised as Australia’s first-ever medalists in men’s basketball.
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