Dream Team to Nightmare Team: LeBron, Wade & the USA that suffered Olympics humiliation

After three Olympic golds on the bounce with NBA players in their team, the USA suffered a disastrous campaign at the 2004 Games in Athens, despite the legendary names in their roster.

  • Larry Brown

    Larry Brown

    A key figure in the history of American basketball, the legendary coach was unable to bring structure and direction to a team that arrived in Athens hit by absences and with a very young roster. Assistant coach at Sydney 2000, he took charge of the USA after a disastrous 2002 World Cup and in Greece finished up with a bronze that left a bitter taste in the mouth. His CV is astonishing: he’s the only coach to have won the college championship and the NBA, he has 1,275 wins as a coach between ABA and NBA, and is the only person to have led eight NBA teams to the playoffs. A gold-medal winner as a player at the 1964 Olympics, he was unable to repeat that feat as a coach in Athens, having gone into the Games on the back of an NBA title triumph with the Detroit Pistons.

    FOTO: Jamie Squire (Getty Images)

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  • Tim Duncan

    Tim Duncan

    The captain was 28 in Athens and averaged 12.9 points and 9.1 rebounds. Duncan didn’t live up to his legendary status - he’s without doubt the best power-forward in history - but, together with Richard Jefferson and Allen Iverson, was one of the few who didn’t drop out before the Games. Fears of another terrorist attack following 9/11 (the USA squad stayed in a luxury bunker on the ship the Queen Mary 2), family commitments (weddings, births…) and injuries meant the Americans were without Vince Carter, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Ray Allen, Jason Kidd… Kobe Bryant was in the middle of his sexual-assault case and also missed the Olympics.


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  • Allen Iverson

    Allen Iverson

    The USA’s other captain and a complicated character who clashed with Brown. Despite that, Iverson was the highest scorer (averaging 13.8) in a team that were known as Dream Team IV when they started out, but ended up as the Nightmare Team. After 24 successive Olympic wins since NBA players came into the team at Barcelona ’92, the USA lost three times in Athens and finished third. Against Puerto Rico, the USA lost by their largest ever margin at the Games (92-73), before defeats against Lithuania (who they then beat in the bronze-medal match) and, in the semi-finals, Argentina’s legendary golden generation (89-91).


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  • LeBron James

    LeBron James

    James bounced back as part of the Redeem Team at Beijing 2008, and also won gold at London 2012, but the beginning of his international career was a disaster. He was just 19 when he was called up due to the USA’s swathe of absences, together with other emerging stars such as Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Emeka Okafor. Half the team was under 24 and, from the most recent season, there was only one member of the All-NBA Team (Duncan) and two All-Stars (Duncan and Iverson). LeBron’s opening experience of FIBA basketball didn’t go well.

    FOTO: Helen H. Richardson (Denver Post via Getty Images)

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  • Richard Jefferson

    Richard Jefferson

    Jefferson ended up as a highly valued veteran who played an important part in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA title win in 2016, when the Cavs overturned a 3-1 deficit against the Golden State Warriors, led by James and Kyrie Irving. But at the time he was a full-on star, a powerful small forward who played for a Brooklyn Nets side who were NBA finalists in both 2002 and 2003. In Athens, he scored below seven points per game. He had been part of the team that sealed the USA’s ticket to the Olympics at the 2003 Tournament of the Americas, and was one of the players who, having committed to going to Athens, kept his word when the Games arrived.

    FOTO: Jamie Squire (Getty Images)

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  • Stephon Marbury

    Stephon Marbury

    A legend of New York basketball, his level of talent was only comparable to that of his indiscipline and difficulty of character. Fourth overall pick in the 1996 draft, he was an All-Star in 2001 and 2003, but his NBA career went south pretty quickly. He then went on to go become a great of the Chinese game, surprisingly finding his place in the Asian nation’s league. Spanish fans have bad memories of him. He only averaged 10.5 points per game in Athens, but exploded into life in the quarter-finals against Spain, hitting six three-pointers on his way to registering 31 points. Spain won all five of their group games to top their section, but had the misfortune of meeting the USA in the last eight, after the Americans limped to a fourth-placed finish in their group. The US played their best game of the tournament against Spain, who had been a major contender for a medal… until they came up against Marbury.

    FOTO: Friedemann Vogel (Bongarts/Getty Images)

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  • Shawn Marion

    Shawn Marion

    Another player who was at his peak when the Athens Games came around. He was never a superstar, but he wasn’t far off that level in his time as a hyper-physical, agile small forward in the Phoenix Suns side coached by Mike D’Antoni and led on the court by Steve Nash. Mario was an All-Star four times (in 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007) and, like Jefferson, ended up winning an NBA championship at the tail end of his career, in his case with the Dallas Mavericks of Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, a team that sprang a huge surprise in the Finals against the Miami Heat of James and Wade. In the season before the Games, he averaged 19 points and nearly 10 rebounds with the Suns. In Athens, he couldn’t get beyond 10 and six. Another player who felt uncomfortable playing against defences that forced him to shoot from behind the three-point line.

    FOTO: Sean Garnsworthy (Getty Images)

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  • Amare Stoudemire

    Amare Stoudemire

    Very young at the time, Stoudemire’s best years would come with the Suns after the 2004 Games, where he was just 21 and averaged 2.8 points and 1.8 rebounds. A physical beast who went on to be a six-time All-Star but suffered from knee problems that cut short his prime years, he ended up converting to Judaism and playing in Israel for Hapoel Jerusalem and Maccabi Tel Aviv. The USA turned to him in the face of a spate of absences affecting what should have been a dream inside game: the 2004 playoffs led to Shaquille O’Neal, Ben Wallace and Jermaine O’Neal all being ruled out.

    FOTO: Ezra Shaw (Getty Images)

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  • Carmelo Anthony

    Carmelo Anthony

    Another legend who made a bad start to his international career. Anthony was 20 and playing for the Denver Nuggets when he was hastily summoned to help fill the void left by the USA’s absentees. Bronze in 2004 would be the first of four medals and the beginning of a story that saw him become probably Team USA’s most important ever player. He was part of the teams that were victorious in Beijing, London and Rio, becoming the first men’s US player to win three golds and appear at four consecutive Games. He’s the highest scorer in the history of the USA team and put on record-breaking displays at the Olympics: against Nigeria in 2012 (37 points, 10/12 three-pointers) and against Australia in 2016 (31 points in 35 minutes, 9/15 three-pointers). At Athens 2004, however, he managed just 2.4 points per game.


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  • Carlos Boozer

    Carlos Boozer

    Another player who was very young (22) when he went to Athens. He had arrived in the NBA in the 2002 draft, so had only been in the league for two years when he became an Olympian. He averaged 7.6 points and 6.1 rebounds and afterwards, during the best period of his career (he was an All-Star with the Utah Jazz in 2007 and 2008), he earned his spot in the tremendous Redeem Team, the USA’s Beijing 2008 squad that comprehensively avenged the disappointments of Athens and the 2006 World Cup, where a team also filled with NBA stars had to settle for bronze after coming unstuck against Greece in the semi-finals. Boozer was a forceful power-forward who worked hard and had deft shooting skills in attack. He wasn’t a major star, but he was certainly an excellent player during his peak years.


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  • Lamar Odom

    Lamar Odom

    Odom was 24 and had already been in the NBA for five years when he was selected for the Athens Games, where he averaged 9.3 points and 5.8 rebounds. Having moved from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Miami Heat 12 months earlier, that summer he was sent to the Los Angeles Lakers as part of the deal that took Shaquille O’Neal to Miami following the breakdown of his relationship with Bryant. At the Lakers, Odom became a star, winning the 2009 and 2010 NBA title with Bryant and Pau Gasol, and winning Sixth Man of the Year in 2011. His versatility and talent made him a unique player, a man ahead of his time, a six-foot-10-inch player who could dribble, act as a point guard, shoot… In 2010 he avenged the disappointment of 2004 with gold at the World Cup, as part of the team led by a young Kevin Durant. He had a bad end to his career (with a brief spell in Spain at Baskonia) and his addiction issues almost led to tragedy in 2015. He now dabbles in boxing.

    FOTO: Andreas Rentz (Bongarts/Getty Images)

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  • Dwyane Wade

    Dwyane Wade

    Another legend of the 2003 draft, together with James and Anthony, for whom Athens came too soon. Aged 22 and with just a single NBA season under his belt, he averaged 7.3 points at the 2004 Olympics. Four years later, he bounced back with the Redeem Team in Beijing, top-scoring with 16 points per game for a side that was a Dream Team once more. In Greece, however, he failed to make an impact as he struggled to adapt to FIBA basketball. In the legendary 2008 final, he scored 27 points against Spain. At the 2006 World Cup, which brought another bronze, he averaged more than 19 points per game. He didn’t make it to London 2012. One of the best shooting guards in history, he retired in 2019 back at the team where he spent the bulk of his career, the Miami Heat, having won three championship rings, a Finals MVP award and been an All-Star 13 times.

    FOTO: Jamie Squire (Getty Images)

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  • Emeka Okafor

    Emeka Okafor

    At 21, Okafor was older than James and Anthony, but he was still only a college player. He didn’t arrive in the NBA until that summer, as the number-two pick in the draft behind Dwight Howard, who beat him to Rookie of the Year. A centre of extreme physical prowess and immense defensive ability, he made a promising start in the NBA at the Charlotte Bobcats (averaging 15.1 points and 10.9 rebounds as a rookie), only for injuries to spoil his career. He went to Athens having sparkled for UConn, winning the college championship and being named Final Four MVP. He played only two games, didn’t score, and never appeared for the USA again.

    FOTO: Matt Stroshane (Getty Images)

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