Put yourself in the summer of 1948.
Toast of the Town, later renamed The Ed Sullivan Show, recently hit television for the first time. Americans were three years removed from World War II, but the Cold War was in its early days. And the Summer Olympics were held for the first time since the 1936 in Berlin, postponed because of WWII. It was the 11th Summer Games, but only the second time basketball was an Olympic sport. London would host.
After finishing nearly in last place of the 21-team field (yeah, I know, weird) in 1936 — basketball’s Olympic debut (for the men; women didn’t begin play until 40 years later) — France put forth a really good team in 1948. They went all the way to the gold medal round after piecing together a 3-1 record in group play. Some of those scores, per the event’s Wiki page, were as follows: 37-31, 73-14, and 45-33. It was a distinct upgrade from the alleged 27-9, 25-10, and 26-12 final scores of the 1936 Olympics, which also included a 19-8 gold medal final between the United States and Canada.
France lost to the U.S. in the 1948 final, 65-21, and probably thought it’d be a matter of time before winning the gold due to their progression. Why wouldn’t they?
But much like 60 years later, when we all thought the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook-James Harden-Serge Ibaka nucleus in Oklahoma City would eventually win a championship, too, if not multiple… oopsie! France didn’t even return to a gold medal game until 2000, 52 years later, losing again to America, 85-75. (It wasn’t the Vince Carter Dunk of Death game, that was one week prior.)
Still, 73 years on, the two-time silver medalists of France have yet to win gold in the Olympics. And it’s not because they’re underachievers. They’ve actually produced one of the signature basketball programs worldwide — but America’s been so dominant that they’re not only vying for gold medal No. 16, they’re one of only four teams to ever win gold. Two of the others, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, no longer exist. The other is Argentina, who won in 2004. France at least has two silvers, one of only ten clubs to medal multiple times. For reference, as great as Australia has been — reaching fourth place on four separate occasions — they’ve never medaled and will have a chance at bronze this weekend vs. Slovenia.
France, again, is very good. They opened Olympic play by handing Team USA their first Olympic loss since 2004, winning 83-76. They ended a Slovenia Cinderella story by outlasting them 90-89 in the semifinal that aired Thursday morning stateside. And they’re the only undefeated team in the men’s bracket left in Tokyo.
Team USA seems to finally have a rhythm. Against Australia in the semifinals, they had a brutal first half. They trailed, at one point, by 15 points before turning it on like only they can and winning by nearly 20 after outscoring Australia 32-10 in the third quarter. France is the only team who had stifled them when it counted — in the opening game for both teams — but it’ll be immensely difficult to simply defeat Team USA twice, especially considering their chemistry is much better now than when this journey began. France will no doubt be better on that end, but Team USA entered the favorites in spite of all their flaws for a reason.
This is already France’s best team ever. They’ve never had fewer than two losses in an Olympics and still don’t even have one. In their four wins, they’ve outscored their opponents by a combined 45 points. And perhaps they just have America’s number as of late because they did also defeat them in the World Cup quarterfinals two years ago. For France, with Evan Fournier, Nicolas Batum, and Rudy Gobert leading the charge — as America appears its most vulnerable in Olympic play since 2004 — maybe this is finally their moment, and if so, it’s been a long 73 years in the making.