Despite Australia's relative isolation geographically and also with a relatively small population, basketball has evolved from a very small beginning to a major sport competing well internationally in all levels. Australia was first represented in the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956 finishing a creditable 12th ahead of Singapore, Korea and Thailand. The United States won the gold medal as they had done in 1948, and 1952. There was no Olympic Games in 1940, or 1944 due to the second world war. The Soviet Union won the silver medal and Uruguay the bronze which were the same places they occupied in the 1952 Olympic Games.
The 1960 Olympic Games in Rome marked the first time the national team had left the shores of Australia and with no international competition experience from their first Olympics to the next their final ranking of 27th was not surprising. An introduction to a world tournament which replaced the world championship in 1962 in the Philippines provided the first signs of improvement for the men's national team, even though they finished in last place. 10 countries, including the United States and Canada, took part ensuring a very high standard, but none of the then eastern bloc countries participated due to the Philippines government denying visas to the Yugoslavian team. Consequently FIBA, the international governing body for the sport, withdrew the World Championships from them and shifted that tournament to Brazil the following year. Even though the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were not present the tournament that was conducted proved to be a success for the host country and the United States continued their dominance. Australia gained some satisfaction from competing well getting to within six points of every opponent during the last five minutes of every game except against the USA albeit failing to win a single match.
The close losses in 1962 turned to close victories at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo and Australia announced their arrival as a serious competitor at the international level by finishing ninth. From then on with the exception of a disappointing tournament at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 when Australia finished 19th Australia has made steady progress up the international ranking with their highest place finish in the Olympics being 4th in 1992 and 2000.
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 leading scorer in the 1972 Munich Olympics and the leading scorer in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Ian Davies was another prolific scorer for Australia at the world championships and Olympic Games in 1982 and 1984 and Andrew Gaze is one of only two basketball players to have participated in five Olympic Games, the other being Oscar Schmidt of Brazil and together they share the number one and two spots for all time leading scorers in the history of the Olympic Games.
Women's basketball was first admitted to the Olympic Games in Montreal 1976 with only six countries taking part and the women's tournament was limited to only six countries again in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Australia did not qualify for either, but from then on Australian women's teams have been strong contenders for winning medals. Their best result was a gold medal at the world championships in 2006 and a silver medal in both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games. Australian women have also made their mark at the highest international level with Jean Kupsche recognized as being one of the best at the international level during the late 1960s and then came Maree Bennie and Julie Gross who were the first Australian female players to win All American honours while playing college basketball in the United States. Maree married Gary Jackson, who was selected on an Australian squad but did not make the world championship or Olympic Games. However Maree and Gary are the proud parents of Lauren Jackson who, many say, is among the best female basketball players of all time. Lauren has led Australia to a gold medal at the world championships and two silver medals at the Olympic Games while collecting individual most-valuable-player awards in the Australian national basketball league, the Russian national basketball league and the Women's NBA in the United States.
Basketball in Australia did not improve by accident. Short term goals were set with an eye on the long term objectives and there were two significant factors which led to rapid improvement in playing and coaching standards during the early 70's to the mid 80's. The first was the recruitment of outstanding coaches from the USA to conduct clinics in Australia and to have their teams visit for exhibition matches. For many years the visit of American and then later, European teams, provided top level international experience for our coaches and players. Initially it would be unusual for any of the Australian club teams to beat any of the visitors, but by the mid 80s the results had turned around and, no matter what their ranking was, the US college teams were more likely to lose more games than they won during their visits to Australia. The second important factor in Australia's rapid improvement was a decision by the federal government to offer two years contracts to American teachers with travel expenses paid due to a shortage of qualified teachers in Australia during the 60's and 70's. Many of the American teachers were also fine players and coaches and the contest by local clubs to recruit them became fierce. It was not unusual to see club representatives at the airport when a new quota of American teachers were due to arrive and any tall person who stepped off the plane was immediately invited to join a club. It was not only their playing skills that contributed to the development of the sport but also their enthusiasm to teach students during school hours. Suddenly basketball became a very popular school sport. Many of the teachers who were first recruited by the government for a two years contract decided to settle in Australia, become Australian citizens and have since made very valuable contributions, not only to the sport but the community at large.
The longer term goals were mainly directed toward the development of facilities. It was not possible for basketball to grow unless facilities were constructed and each of the Australian state associations embarked on their own strategic plans to accommodate the ever increasing number of participants.