If you slept in like I did, you probably missed it live, but by now you’ve probably heard: The French men’s basketball team upset the long-dominant Team USA in both teams’ first game of the Olympics on Sunday. The loss does not knock the US out of the competition, still in its preliminary stages, but the result is both historically jarring and, at the same time, not entirely unexpected. Team USA entered the games having won 25 straight contests at the Olympics and three gold medals in the process. They had also lost back-to-back exhibition games this month, to Australia and Nigeria—the latter a team it had beat by 83 points fairly recently.
There’s plenty to say about this result, but when I saw it, I immediately thought of Frederic Weis. In 2000, the French men’s basketball team was on the wrong side of perhaps the greatest and coolest Olympic basketball highlight of all time, in which Vince Carter of Team USA dunked over the 7-foot-tall Weis. By over, I mean, over over—Carter jumped clear over his head.
It’s still jaw-dropping to watch:
And that sort of epitomized the talent gap between the US and the rest of the world for a long time. France was the silver medalist that year! Even when the US men flopped in 2004 (that 25-game winning streak began at the bronze-medal game in Athens), it was correctly seen as something the US brought about itself through bad chemistry and team selection rather than the ascension of a truly equal rival.
Frankly, it rules that the US men are having a hard time beating other countries. There’s no real point to international competition unless losing is a real possibility. And while the US men have real issues of their own (LeBron James, the most dominant player of his generation, is not participating this time around), a large part of their struggles can be chalked up to that fact that their opponents just keep getting better. That Nigerian squad they just lost to had eight NBA players on its roster. Australia has a strong lineup of (very annoying!) NBA players. Team France has real NBA talent, including the reigning defensive player of the year. For men’s Olympic basketball to really be worth our time, the rest of the field has to be able to draw blood, and now it can.
So, good for France. But they can never take away that dunk.