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  • American Hoops: U.S. Men's Olympic Basketball from Berlin to Beijing
  • Milton S. Katz
Cunningham, Carson . American Hoops: U.S. Men's Olympic Basketball from Berlin to Beijing. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010. Pp. 528. Illustrations, notes, and index. $40.00 cb.

During the 2008 Beijing Olympic games, 4.7 billion people, about 70 percent of the world's population, tuned on their television sets to witness the spectacle. One of the highlights of the event was the U.S. Men's Basketball "Redeem Team," which captured the gold medal with its victory over Spain. Olympic basketball had become a worldwide sensation. The International Basketball Federation (FIBA), which sanctions Olympic basketball, partners with more than 210 nations. Billions of people play and watch the sport throughout the world, and the sports stars are widely recognized. In 2008, the National Basketball Association (NBA) featured seventy-six players from thirty-two countries, and the NBA finals aired in 205 countries in over forty different languages. Furthermore, the meteoric rise of interest in Olympic basketball has facilitated cultural exchanges and promoted a common desire for Western products throughout the globe.

In American Hoops, Cunningham, a visiting professor of history at DePaul University, offers a riveting and convincing explanation of how this phenomenon came about. Relying extensively on interviews with a vast array of former Olympic coaches and players, Cunningham weaves a rich tapestry exploring the relationship of sport and politics that brings the excitement of Olympic basketball to life. His thesis is that the intersection of three forces—liberal capitalism, technological innovation, and the revolution within the sport—all contributed to the electrifying evolution of Olympic men's basketball and the global sport that it is today. [End Page 454]

This evolution certainly sprang from modest soil. Basketball became a full-medal sport for the first time during the 1936 Berlin games. When the inventor of the sport, Dr. James Naismith, tossed up the ball in the inaugural game between Estonia and France on an outdoor court, few if anyone could envision an optimistic future for the game. In Berlin, the U.S. men's basketball team captured its first gold medal, beating Canada by a score of 19 to 8.

A few decades later, opportunity for African Americans, greater competitiveness, diversity, and innovation revolutionized the sport, and in the early years of the Cold War, Olympic basketball played an important role in showcasing American democratic ideals to the rest of the world. In 1948, Don Barksdale became the first African American to play for the U.S. Olympic basketball team. In the 1956 games, the speed, agility, and skill of Bill Russell became an international model for the big man in basketball that other countries would struggle to emulate. Four years later, the combination of size, speed, ball handling, shooting, passing, and power at the guard position exhibited by Oscar Robertson would have the same dynamic effect. The trend toward a more open, faster, and higher-scoring style of basketball had become international. Ironically, Henry Iba, who favored a more deliberate style of play, was chosen by the U.S. Olympic committee to coach three straight basketball teams from 1964 to 1972. Fortunately, relatively unknown African-American coach John McLendon, a pioneer in the development of the fast break, was an assistant in two of them and had an immeasurable positive influence not only on the African-American players like Charlie Scott and Spencer Haywood but on the pace and style of the game itself.

Cunningham skillfully explains the tension between the AAU and NCAA in fielding players for these teams and the complex issues of professionalism and amateurism. He also exhibits admirable restraint in exploring how the 1972 loss to the Soviet Union in Munich remains the most controversial championship of all time and clearly demonstrates how racial issues, super-nationalism, and overwrought individuality at the expense of team work exacerbated problems within the U.S. team and helped to undermine American basketball supremacy.

In 1992 the largely professional "Dream Team" of Larry Bird, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, and Michael Jordan epitomized basketball's global reach and raised the basketball standard for everyone. Through the massive Olympic basketball...


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