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Cold War rivalry could heat up in hoops finals

August 08, 2012

Russia's players celebrate at the end of the women's quarter final basketball match Turkey vs Russia at the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 7, 2012 at the basketball arena in London. Russia won 66-63. (AFP PHOTO)

LONDON: The United States NBA Dream Team and Russia's top basketball talent, the ex-Cold War rivals and now basketball rivals, could be headed for a possible Olympic gold medal showdown after 40 years.

The American and Russian men’s basketball teams have not faced a one-game showdown for Olympic basketball gold since a controversial 1972 final in which the Soviet Union defeated the US men on the third attempt to play the final three seconds.

And not since the 1976 debut of Olympic women's basketball, when the Soviets defeated the US women for gold, have US and Russian women met in a Games final.

But US-Russia Olympic finals are possible this weekend for both men's and women's gold medals, potentially pitting a month-old US NBA team against Russian men that have been together seven years and the reigning European women's champions against a four-time defending Olympic champion on a 39-game Olympic win streak.

The unbeaten US men face Australia in a Wednesday quarter-final while the top-seeded Russians go against regional rival Lithuania.

On the women's side, the US will face Australia in a Thursday semi-final while Russia will play unbeaten France in the other semi-final ahead of Saturday's gold medal game.

The rivalry, like the Cold War, has thawed since the 1972 Munich Olympic final when the Soviet team was given three chances to win due to what were called timekeeping errors.

The US silver medals from that first-ever American Olympic basketball defeat remain with the International Olympic Committee, US players refusing to accept them, feeling they were robbed of rightful gold.

In fact, it was a Soviet victory over a US collegiate squad in a 1988 Seoul Olympics semi-final that prompted USA Basketball to join forces with the NBA and create the original Dream Team for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and teammates brought global attention to the sport and set the stage for US teams to win 1996 and 2000 gold but the world caught up and in a shock fall the Americans could muster only bronze in 2004.

This led to a revamped US program that has lost only in the 2006 world semi-finals and is a clear favourite at London, having scored an Olympic record 156 points in a victory over Nigeria.

“Every night is different. One night you can have 156 points. A different night you could start missing.” Russian coach David Blatt, an American, has built a program for years and a golden showdown against his homeland's Dream Team could be just what all the work has been building toward.

“This is a new Russia. It's a different day. It's a different age. The political climate has changed drastically and that's trickling down into sports and slowly but surely we're becoming part of that inner circle of well-known and respected teams.” Imagine the respect they would get for stunning a Dream Team in the final.