From 21 athletes and no basketballs to a Boomers side brimming with stars

The Saitama Super Arena is a world away from the cavernous training courts of Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence at the Australian Institute of Sport. The former is situated within greater Tokyo, one of the densest metropolitan areas in the world, the latter within a sprawling, low-rise campus in leafy northern Canberra. But when the Boomers take on Team USA in the semi-final of the Tokyo 2020 men’s basketball on Thursday, a straight line can be drawn from the AIS to the Olympic arena.

In 1981, after prime minister Malcolm Fraser formally opened the AIS to “carry Australia’s name high”, Dr Adrian Hurley and Patrick Hunt set about developing a basketball program that would revolutionise the sport in Australia. “There was Adrian, 21 athletes and no basketballs,” Hunt later recalled.

After some initial experimentation, the pair settled on a residential academy program for high-schoolers. It was pioneering at the time and quickly became the primary pathway for Australians who wanted to play basketball on the world stage. In 1986, a gangly Victorian joined the program – a decade later, Luc Longley was winning NBA championships with the famous Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls.

The program could have easily fallen over. “In the early days, we were worried that the government might pull the plug on the whole thing,” Hunt has admitted. “Everyone was impatient.” But four decades later, the AIS basketball program is still standing – indeed, it has been such a success that the NBA situated its own global academy alongside the Centre of Excellence.

There are 12 players on the Boomers roster in Tokyo. Five of them are graduates of the AIS residential program, a handful more have toured with the AIS or trained at AIS camps. In the past, the ratio would have been even higher – it is a credit to the AIS that, by raising the profile of Australian basketballers, overseas pathways (including American high schools and colleges) have become more accessible to the current generation.

But the heart and soul of this Boomers team was carefully moulded over four decades in Canberra. The current senior leadership – Patty Mills, Joe Ingles, Aron Baynes, Matthew Dellavedova – were all at the AIS within a few years of each other. The program instilled in them a love of national team basketball that persists. Mills – Australia’s co-flag bearer at the Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony – is one of the program’s favourite sons.

The heart and soul of this Boomers team was carefully moulded over four decades in Canberra
But while the training courts in Canberra have helped Australia’s women, the Opals, to medal success at the Olympics and Fiba World Cup, a medal in major international competition has eluded the men. At four Olympics, across four decades, the Boomers have played for a bronze medal and lost. Just five years ago, in Rio, the Australians came within one point of an elusive Olympic medal. If it was not for a questionable foul call on Mills, the Boomers’ drought may have finally ended.

It did not, and so the Australians find themselves against Team USA on Wednesday afternoon in the most eagerly anticipated clash of the men’s tournament in Tokyo 2020. Win and the Boomers are guaranteed a medal, facing off against France or Slovenia in the clash for gold. Lose and they will have another opportunity to win the bronze medal match that for so long has defied the Australians.

Team USA were once the most formidable force in men’s basketball. They have won six of the last seven Olympic gold medals. But the Americans no longer carry an air of invincibility. The Boomers have beaten them twice in the past three years, most recently at a pre-Tokyo warm-up event in Las Vegas. Team USA lost to France in their opening match of the Games – although they have subsequently triumphed over Iran, the Czech Republic and, most significantly, Spain in the quarter-final.

The Boomers, meanwhile, are unbeaten at the Saitama Super Arena – they topped Group A with wins over Nigeria, Italy and Germany before seeing off Argentina to progress to the semi-final. The Americans will be Australia’s sternest test yet, but the Boomers will head into the clash with a belief that they can continue their winning streak.

With Baynes missing through an injury suffered mid-tournament, Australia’s big men will need to step up: Jock Landale, Nick Kay and Matisse Thybulle can all expect major minutes. Thybulle was a key contributor at both ends of the court against Argentina. Dante Exum has also been an important creative spark in the tournament to date.

But if Australia are to defeat Team USA, the Boomers veterans – Mills, Ingles, Dellavedova – will have to be at their best. They all have big-match experience, with Mills and Dellavedova both earning championship rings in the NBA. Their composure in the semi-final, as they seek to rally a young team to what would be their most significant international victory in history, will be essential.

In the meeting room at the AIS basketball program, known as “the Den”, there are hundreds of images on the wall of the alumni who have gone on to represent Australia. The program has contributed so much to Australian basketball. But it has not, yet, led to an Olympic medal for the Boomers. After four decades of heartbreak, the team will go again on Thursday.