How the past is driving the Boomers' golden generation forward

In 1996, prior to the Atlanta Olympics Games, Shane Heal lofted yet another 3-point attempt, this time from the left wing, that splashed through the nylon. Perhaps the defining image for a generation was Heal running back down the court, chest-to-chest with a hulking Charles Barkley, after the Dream Team power forward had undercut the diminutive guard.

The Boomers were the avatar of pluckiness; they punched well above their weight. And they earned the respect of the world, grabbing fourth-place finishes in consecutive Olympics, at Atlanta and Sydney, to tie with Seoul as their best-ever placing at a major tournament. Along the way, the names of Andrew Gaze, Luc Longley, Chris Anstey, Mark Bradtke, Heal and countless others would inspire a generation.

Fast-forward two decades later and the defining image of this generation is perhaps that of the Boomers leading Team USA early in the fourth-quarter in Rio, only for some heroics from Carmelo Anthony to deny them a famous victory. Afterward, a defiant Andrew Bogut would proclaim there were no moral victories, thus, foreshadowing a more aggressive psyche of the national team.

Or perhaps the indelible image is that of heartache and lancing pain for the Boomers in the aftermath of a heartbreaking 89-88 loss to Spain, in the bronze medal playoff in Carioca Arena. The Boomers' first major tournament medal was within its grasp. A string of moments would conspire to deny them -- the arm-bar foul call on Aron Baynes, the foul call on Patty Mills, then the last-gasp effort to conjure a game-winning shot that ultimately failed as time expired.

To fully grasp the enormity of it all, only days earlier, the Boomers were lauded as potential worthy gold-medal combatants against Team USA. A single slip-up in the tournament -- a shellacking at the hands of Serbia in the semifinal -- relegated them to the bronze playoff, and the cruel, numbing fortunes of sport.

Afterward, in the sanctuary of the locker room, free from prying eyes, the Boomers would take their time to quietly reflect upon what had just happened.

How else would you deal with emotions so raw?

"You don't say anything," Bogut tells ESPN.

Instead, you allow for individual reflection and space for solitude and sense-making; to sort through the ephemeral hurt that always seems to feel as though it will linger, but invariably heals with time.

"You bring it in," adds Bogut. "You address it over a few beers probably the next day, or that night."

While it's clear those memories still seethe beneath the surface, providing the Boomers with ample motivation, the Rio experience -- their most recent major tournament together -- has also proven to be instructive as a self-reflexive exercise.

"All in all, it was a huge step forward for us, even though we finished fourth," Bogut says. "I think we sent a clear message that we're going into tournaments to try to win. I think our mindset changed.

"Even though we finished fourth, guys now know that playing for the national team is no longer for s---s and giggles -- we're going out there to win a medal."

Bogut is often credited with shifting the psyche of the senior team from aspirational go-getters to genuine medal contenders. This Boomers' core -- this team that will compete at the World Cup -- truly believes they can beat the best. Their historic victory over Team USA on Saturday in Melbourne only serves to strengthen that resolve.

The metamorphosis, over time, from plucky overachievers to elite status within the world pecking order, is an inflection point to be examined. If currency within international basketball is measured with NBA representation, the Boomers are an ascendant team. This is their golden generation. For a time, Bogut was the lone bastion of Australian representation within the NBA. When he first entered the league, Australian players were a relative unknown quantity -- Luc Longley had retired by 2001. Outside of Longley, the Australian presence had been fleeting.

"Amongst coaches, it was 'tough, gritty, they'll fight you if you have to,'" Bogut says of the perceived reputation of Australian players. "But amongst players, it was unknown. Players didn't really know much about us."

That has changed.

This past season alone, a record 13 Australians have passed through the NBA -- from starry names such as Ben Simmons, to established ones such as Bogut, Joe Ingles and Mills, to the first-timers in Mitch Creek and Deng Adel. This season, Simmons became Australia's first All-Star.

In the past, encounters with powerhouse sides like Team USA may have elicited outward bravado, but it was always undermined by inner trepidation and angst: Was winning really possible?

"Now, 9 out of 12, 10 out of 12 players have at least touched their foot on an NBA floor in some capacity," says Bogut. "And some guys are playing 60-70 games a year for the last 5-10 years. We don't even have that conversation anymore. That makes a huge difference."

Familiarity has bred collective confidence. Indeed, the Boomers' defeat of Team USA at Marvel Stadium -- in Game 2 of their exhibition series -- highlighted their raging, internal belief.

"I think the last couple of Olympics and worlds [there] has really been a belief," Ingles says. "And not even from us. I think Australia, the public, sits there and they talk about us as medaling."

The wave of current Australian talent is not limited to the NBA, of course. Brock Motum, who did not make the Boomers final 12-man World Cup squad, and has played in Italy, Turkey and Lithuania -- and is now with Spanish club, Valencia -- is a multiple championship winner and proven Euroleague performer.

Jock Landale, who did make the Boomers team, impressed immensely in his lone season with Partizan and will ply his trade with Motum's former powerhouse Lithuanian team, Zalgiris.

Or consider the talents in the domestic NBL -- a league on the rise -- with names such as Chris Goulding, Nathan Sobey, Cam Gliddon and Nick Kay able to force their way into the Boomers squad through performance.

"It's the perfect mix of basketball in Australia probably being at its pinnacle," Bogut agrees.

So, how did we get here? What were the steps that led to such a moment?

Zoom out, and the growth of Australian basketball over the past four decades, both male and female, can be traced back to the convergence of a number of factors. You can start with the development of a stronger basketball culture, through the assimilation of practices and standards from great coaching minds. The development of facilities, and their accessibility -- as accentuated by Melbourne's love affair with basketball -- has led to more avenues to play the game, to enjoy the game, and provided dedicated spaces to teach the game, with a committed approach to learning and developing.

Then there's world-class coaching and development at the junior level. And perhaps most importantly, the identification of elite young talent who then grasped onto the opportunities they were able to access. It's all a cyclical blend -- or "mix," as Bogut puts it -- that has culminated in rising interest in the game, greater than ever before access to watch the NBA, the greatest league in the world, which in turn has driven kids to emulate their heroes.

"Kids are getting to 15-16 [years old] and taking off to the States and bettering themselves against better competition," Bogut says. "There's just more competition over there, and battling in their final two years of high school."

This goes both ways, of course. Bogut arguably opened the floodgates for American scouts to descend upon Australia to personally monitor and recruit prospects on the other side of the world. Seeing Australian talent able to hold its own in the best league in the world has only reinforced this as a worthy exercise.

The pioneering work of Longley can't be forgotten as its true genesis. Chris Anstey followed. The international exploits of Gaze and Heal kept Australian basketball on the map.

But Bogut truly made everyone notice, and led to a vanguard of Australian talent breaking into the NBA with relative regularity.

"The Longleys and that era opened the door," Ingles says. "I think Bogut and Patty [Mills], and all that, pushed the door really far open, and really gave more opportunities for guys like me in Europe to go and get a trial."

At the heart of Australia's basketball development is Basketball Australia's Centre of Excellence (CoE), a nursery with a world-class development program that continues to churn out elite-level junior talent.

There are three key messages that are imparted to scholarship holders: Play together. Play tough. Play smart.

"We play together," says Adam Caporn, who heads the centre of excellence, and is also an assistant coach with the Boomers. "You have to be a great teammate. You have to care about your mates, and play for them. You have to be tough. Toughness is an interesting thing to define, but certainly something that Australian teams hang their hat on; being resilient, being able to absorb punishment, pressure and operate together to achieve difficult things. And then we have very smart players. I think the game is taught, we have different types of athletes, and types of basketball players. Fundamentals are taught, but also strategy in a game, and playing together."

Resisting result-driven learning, the Centre's methodology has centred on purely teaching, so juniors develop the physical and cognitive approach that can stand the rigours and challenges of professional basketball.

"It's really truly focused on development," Adam Caporn says. "The goal is long term. That's a really freeing concept as a coach and as a player, and it gives really good perspective and opportunities for guys for develop."

"Our junior level bats far above its weight, and always has," Bogut says. "Our junior coaches do a phenomenal job with development and getting kids ready to take that next level."

Although not all were within the same class then, Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), this current core of Boomers have essentially grown together through their national team experience.

"I think super successful elite players come in bunches," explains Caporn. "Because they make each other good and influence each other. Someone breaks through -- the Luc Longleys and Boguts -- and [shows] how other people it's possible and the floodgates open."

For Ingles, this group has essentially grown into an extended family, with tight bonds forged through victory and defeat.

"It was really exciting to come back into this little group, and this atmosphere," he tells ESPN. "I see these guys -- we go out for dinner on the road in the States. We're really just good mates. That core group has been together for so long now. There's a bunch of us that have been on it from '08, and then that next group with Delly [Matthew Dellavedova] and [Aron] Baynes getting included."

Again, familiarity breeds confidence. The ties for this group were not only forged on the court, in the heat of battle. Or in training camps, where the closed-off boundaries force interaction. There is genuine fondness -- a visceral affection to how this group coalesces.

"It's like what normal people feel going to a family dinner," Ingles ventures. "There's no awkwardness. We are who we are."

Ingles is all shoulder shrugs and arms as he tries to explain how he feels when he's reunited with this group. He struggles with the wording, because there's almost an unspoken connection -- he feels like how he feels.

Ingles, in particular, cites his relationship with Mills, over the course of well more than a decade, as a microcosm of the larger close-knit Boomers fraternity.

"It's funny," he says of his affinity with Mills. "We went to the AIS together when we were 16 and now we're 31. I've played with Patty, and against him in the NBA, for 15 years now."

Larry Brown's affinity with Australian basketball began in 1964, when the former Tar Heel first encountered the Boomers at the Tokyo Olympics. That Boomers side was headlined by Lindsay Gaze.

Standing 5-foot-9, Brown was fresh from guiding the Goodyear Wingfoots to the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national title. At the time, a number of major corporations -- such as Goodyear and Phillips Petroleum -- bankrolled elite basketball programs, often employing their players with jobs within the company.

A year earlier, Brown had been drafted by the Baltimore Bullets. Considered too small for the NBA, he instead played for the Wingfoots. After winning the AAU National Tournament in '64, he was selected for Olympic trials, and from there, the point guard made the final squad for Tokyo.

To begin the tournament, Team USA defeated the Boomers 78-45, but something stuck with Brown.

Olympic organisers had determined the Americans would eat with players from New Zealand, Great Britain and Australia. Throughout the course of the Games, Brown had the opportunity to converse with the Boomers on a daily basis and bond over meals, with both teams sharing similar game and practice schedules.

"I admired the way they played," Brown recalls. "But I just liked the guys. They were just really terrific and kind. I enjoyed competing against them. I looked forward to seeing them every day."

The flourishing relationship culminated in Brown presenting Lindsay Gaze for his induction into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Induction in 2015.

The storied careers of the Gazes needs no retelling -- both were pioneers and largely responsible for the development of playing and coaching pathways for Australian basketball.

Through his own affinity with Lindsay Gaze and Australian basketball, Brown offers his view of the reputation of Australian basketball. "The kids seem to come from Australia with a great understanding of how to play, and how important it is to make people around them better, and to accept coaching," he says. "I find so many people that I've met from Australia, they're so open to learn, but also to share ideas as well. It's the way the game should be."

His voice should carry weight -- as a coach, he has won an NCAA title with the Kansas Jayhawks, and of course, coached the 2004 NBA title-winning Detroit Pistons. His coaching journey has spanned over five decades. Along the way, he's come across Australian talent in his recruitment efforts who have left indelible impressions.

Brown is adamant that he first coined the term: Play the right way.

Before every practice and every game at North Carolina, the legendary Dean Smith would ensure that his players were focused on the basic building blocks of team success.

He would write on the blackboard: Play hard. Play together. Play smart.

"And have fun," Brown recalls.

Seem familiar?

Shared basketball lexicon aside, those are also shared beliefs in the way the game is meant to be played; those traits have defined generations of Australian talent.

"If you were trying to do a profile of an Australian player -- at least the ones I've been exposed to -- I think they all play the right way," Brown says. "It's not something you're born with. It's got to be something that has been instilled in you from an early age."

As Bogut cycled through the grind of NBA seasons upon seasons, and other countrymen joined him in the league, the reputation of Australian players began to crystallise.

"Guys are going to play hard," he says. "Guys are generally good guys in the locker room and not going to cause problems. [They're] happy to play a role -- that's a big thing these days -- knowing that you could be the second or third option, but in a certain system the coach only wants you be the fifth or sixth, and accepting that."

"I think originally it was," agrees Ingles, when it comes to Australian players as culture guys. "Originally, teams would know they're getting a great guy in terms of culture for the team. They're going to work hard. They're going to play or not play -- they're not going to complain about their role."

"That's one of the things I value most," Brown says. "I don't understand this thing about lesser roles. I think you do what you do best, and the most important thing is to make your teammates better. I think the kids that have grown up from that Academy [AIS/Centre of Excellence] with the culture of Australian basketball understand that it's a team game. The most important thing you can do is [to] go out every day and do the things you do the best, work on the things you need to get better, and put your team ahead of everything. There's a certain grit about the Australian kids too. They all are tough. They all are unselfish."

Brown spent part of the summer with the Utah Jazz -- Quin Snyder worked for Brown when they were both at the Los Angeles Clippers. Ingles has become a key glue guy for the team and the locker room.

"You can look at all the things and say [he's] not athletic enough," Brown says of Ingles. "He's not quick enough, he doesn't do this well enough, and yet he's a great player in the NBA."

During his visit, Brown would hear Jazz staffers rave all about Joe Ingles, and how the Australian affects winning.

"He guards the best players," he says. "He doesn't look like he's a great shooter and [yet] makes all the big shots. He can pass the ball. And then being around the Utah people, and hearing them talk about [him] as a teammate, as a player, I can see why Utah has done so well."

For Ingles, it is difficult to paint an entire cohort -- or nation of players, for that matter -- with broad brushstrokes. However, their developmental learnings at a young age -- playing hard, playing smart, and playing together -- have helped to fortify their reputations as players that go on the court to win, and nothing else, regardless of their role.

"I think all of us, we all have completely different roles within our team," Ingles says. "I know my role is to be that glue guy -- to make a shot, to make a pass, defensively to try and make some plays, or get someone out of a game. Patty is to come off the bench and be that aggressive scorer. And Delly's a backup point guard that's going to be really steady and defensively great."

Ingles continually draws upon the door image; how every cohort of Australians coming through the NBA has managed to widen the opening, allowing further growth and greater opportunity to showcase their talents. The shifting perception has led to more opportunity.

"It's gone from being just culture guys, to guys who can really help our team," he says.

"Before Bogut got hurt," says Brown, "I thought he was as a good a centre as there was in our league -- the passing, he just understood how to make teammates better, and always accepted his role."

Bogut, who became the beacon for Australian NBA aspirants, embraced the role of national representation within the league as the years progressed. For years, he was the lone voice. It's something that Ingles is emulating.

"If it's to help one player get his foot in the door then I feel like I've done my job," Ingles says. "But I feel like with all of us, I think we all definitely take responsibility to keep that door open for the next guys to come through and make an impact."

As the new wave of young Australian talent within the NBA matures -- the likes of Simmons, Thon Maker, Jonah Bolden and Dante Exum -- the hope is that their success is beamed across to the other side of the world, to inspire the next generation, to splinter the door frame for Australian talent to infiltrate the world's grandest stage, not with preconceived notions of what they bring, but rather an open canvas to realise the extent of their talents.

"It's not only the NBA that's being impacted in a positive way with the Aussies," Brown says. "It's colleges [too]. More and more kids are coming over from there and playing college basketball. If they have the talent, there's no doubt in my mind they're going to be able to play on an NBA level. I don't think it's going to stop."

With the convergence of forces, this golden generation has emerged to challenge for major tournament success. With that in mind, is there internal pressure to capitalise upon this zenith?

"Of course there is," Bogut says. "We felt that in Rio as well. We felt like that was a year that we had a chance to do something special and it didn't finish the right way.

"This is definitely the window we've got to try to get that elusive medal."

Says Ingles: "As a team, we know the opportunity we've got. We haven't been shy in saying that we think we're one of the top teams. I think we are."

For Caporn, the intense focus and determination for team success has been evident from the team's first gathering.

"One of the very obvious things when you come into it is how passionate, dedicated this group is to winning a gold medal," says Caporn, who joined the Boomers coaching staff after Rio. "There's great belief. There's great commitment. The intent is very clear. Palpable. Like you can feel it. The commitment is high level."

Still, the nature of national programs is the hasty construction of rosters -- there just isn't the requisite time to build chemistry over a sustained period. Familiarity matters. And with this Boomers family, perhaps therein lies their key advantage -- they genuinely care for each other and want to win for each other. In high-wire situations, when the tension of high stakes moments plays out, that familial connection and trust could prove critical.

"For sure," Ingles says. "I want to win for myself and my country as much as I want to win for Patty and Bogues and Delly and those guys."

"I used to tell my players," says Brown, "when we're really a good team is when you're excited when your teammate does well. Based on my experience, with kids coming from your part of the world, that's in their DNA."

As the Boomers head into their first major tournament since Rio, one cannot help but recall not only that fateful game against Spain, but perhaps the pivotal semifinal against Serbia. Remember, the Boomers had defeated Serbia during pool play; win that encounter and they would guarantee themselves the nation's first senior men's medal.

"It does still hurt to this day," Bogut says.

Instead, Serbia jumped the Boomers early behind sound defensive execution, and playing with a renewed force.

"And they made huge adjustments," Bogut says. "They pushed all our stuff out. They really pressured me above the break. And we couldn't score. It was an absolute s--- show."

The Boomers were uncharacteristically meek, scoring five points in the opening quarter, and merely 14 points by the half. The Serbians flummoxed the Boomers, who appeared to play without their usual zeal.

The Boomers had 25 assists in their pool game against Serbia, as the ball zinged. In the semifinal, they had just 14. Their opponents had 41 assists. They would ultimately succumb, 87-61.

"In a tournament, you have a bad quarter, or a bad game, it can literally derail your tournament," says Bogut, "and we experienced that at the hands of Serbia. Credit to them -- they beat the s--- out of us, and it kind of derailed us for the rest of the tournament."

The lessons learned from that encounter will prove instructive for this iteration of the team.

Canada provides a stern test for the Boomers in their first World Cup game, despite missing almost the entirety of their NBA cadre. Following that, Senegal looms, before a showdown against long-time rivals, Lithuania. For a golden generation, the time to win a first major tournament medal, for themselves -- for their Boomers family -- and for the nation, begins.

For Bogut, the standard-bearer for a generation, the mind-set is clear: "We've got to go out there and put this together on the floor, and win a medal."

Anything is achievable when you play hard, play smart, and play together.