It is not known exactly when basketball was introduced to Australia, although there is evidence the game was being played in 1905 and it is now, more than 100 years later, one of the most popular participation sports in the country. Despite Australia's relative isolation geographically and its relatively small population, basketball in this country has evolved from a very small beginning to the point that Australia's teams are among the elite at international level.
The Australian men's team played at its first Olympic Games at Melbourne in 1956 and finished a creditable 12th ahead of Singapore, Korea and Thailand. The United States won the gold medal as it had done in 1936, 1948, and 1952 (the Olympics were not staged in 1940 and 1944 due to World War II) ahead of the Soviet Union and Uruguay.
The 1960 Olympic Games in Rome marked the first time the national team played outside Australia. With no international competition since the 1956 Olympics, it was not surprising the Australians finished 27th after being required to play in a pre-qualifying tournament. But two years later at a pseudo world championship in the Philippines, Australia showed signs of significant improvement. Although Australia finished 10th of 10, it was competitive and got to within six points of every opponent during the last five minutes of every game except against the USA. Australia did not win a game, but the foundations had been laid for the future.
The close losses of 1962 turned to close victories at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo as Australia announced its arrival as a serious competitor by finishing ninth. With the exception of a disappointing Mexico Olympics in 1968, when Australia finished 19th, the Boomers made steady progress up the international rankings until their reached fourth place in 1988 at Seoul, 1996 at Atlanta and 2000 at Sydney. Along the way, Australia became known as the undersized overachievers, but nothing should ever be said to downplay the quality of the teams and the players who made them.
Australia has surprised the rest of the world by producing outstanding scorers at the world championships and Olympic Games. Eddie Palubinskas, a dynamic guard with almost unlimited shooting range was the second-highest scorer at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the leading scorer at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Ian Davies was a prolific scorer at the 1982 world championships and 1984 Olympic Games in 1982 and 1984, while Andrew Gaze is one of only two male basketball players to have participated in five Olympic Games. The other five-time Olympian is Oscar Schmidt of Brazil and he and Gaze sit at No.1 and No.2 as the all-time leading scorers in the history of the Olympic Games.
Women's basketball was admitted to the Olympic Games in Montreal 1976 with a six-team tournament, but did not probably start to gain prominence and attention until the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. Coincidentally, Australia's women made their Olympic debut in LA and have never finished lower than fifth. In fact, after winning bronze at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, the Opals won three straight Olympic silver medals, losing to the US in the final each time. The Opals have also won world championships medals, culminating in gold at the 2006 titles in Brazil. It was a far cry from Australia's first world championship in Brazil in 1957, when the Opals finished 10th but had blazed a trail for others to proudly follow.
The Australian women have certainly made their mark at the highest international level as a team. Australian women have also made a major impact as individuals. Jean Kupsche was one of the best players at the international level during the late 1960s before Maree Bennie and Julie Gross emerged. Marie and Julie were the first Australian females to win All-American honours while playing college basketball in the United States, which was no insignificant achievement. But even Maree would probably agree her greatest contribution, in partnership with husband Gary Jackson, might have been giving birth to a daughter named Lauren. After all, Lauren Jackson is one of the best female basketball players of all time. Aside from a world championship and three Olympic silver medals with the Opals, Lauren has won titles and MVP awards in the WNBL, WNBA, South Korea and Russia, showing her obvious skills and innate tenacity to get the job done.
Basketball in Australia did not improve by accident over the years. Two significant factors led to rapid improvement in playing and coaching standards during the early 70s to the mid 80s. The first was recruiting outstanding coaches from the USA to conduct clinics in Australia and to have their teams visit for exhibition matches. Initially it was unusual for an Australian club team to beat any of the visiting college teams. But by the mid 80s, the US college teams were likely to lose more games than they won during their visits to Australia. The second important factor in Australia's rapid improvement was the influx of American teachers to cover a shortage in Australia during the 60s and 70s. Many of the American teachers were fine players and coaches and it was not unusual to see club representatives at the airport when a new quota of American teachers arrived. Any tall person who stepped off the plane was immediately invited to join a club. While their playing skills contributed to the development of the sport, their enthusiasm to teach the game helped basketball became a popular school sport. Many of those teachers arrived on a two-year teaching contract and stayed to become Australian citizens, making valuable contributions to basketball and the community at large.
The establishment of the National Basketball League in 1979 and the Women's National Basketball League in 1981 also played a role in developing and promoting the game in Australia. While the Australian competitions have never been able to offer the big money of the major European leagues or the NBA, the quality of the leagues has remained relatively high and has helped produce countless Olympians for the Boomers and Opals.