An Upset in Budapest



An official photo of the 1996 U.S. women’s senior national team.
USA Basketball

The Hungarian team, Ferencváros, managed a surprise upset against the vaunted 1996 U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team in February 1999.
Igor Gruner

No one imagined—not the Hungarians, and certainly not the Americans—that a little-known Hungarian basketball team could beat the vaunted U.S. women’s squad that had swept the 1996 Olympics.

Embassy Budapest was excited to learn that we would host the U.S. Women’s Basketball 1996 Olympic gold medalists in February 1999 on their winter European tour. The U.S. team had compiled a 52-0 exhibition record during its pre-Olympic competition and then won all eight Olympic games to finish with a 60-0 record. More popular than any previous women’s basketball team, Team USA drew a record 202,556 fans during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

And now Olympic champions Lisa Leslie, Ruthie Bolton, Sheryl Swoopes, Teresa Edwards, Dawn Staley and Katrina McClain would play an exhibition match in Budapest against the local Ferencvárosi Torna Club team, with a pre-match friendship game between Parliament and the U.S. embassy. Sports diplomacy at its finest, we thought.

Basketball has a long and distinguished history in Hungary. Physical education teacher Géza Kuncze introduced basketball (korbball) in Hungary in 1912, after he first saw it in Germany. The game proved popular in schools, and Hungary’s national team frequently did well in European competitions.

More than eight decades later, Géza’s grandson, Deputy Prime Minister Gábor Kuncze, was the stimulus for the match between Hungarian parliamentarians and U.S. embassy staff that was to precede the top ticket.

The embassy hoopsters included Deputy Chief of Mission Tom Robertson, Public Affairs Officer Bill Morgan, Consul General Teddy Taylor and Defense Attaché Jon Martinson. Team uniforms were procured at an Air Force base used by the Stabilization Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a NATO-led multinational peacekeeping force deployed after the Bosnian war.

Our public affairs section worked closely with U.S. team coach Nell Fortner and managers to support what we saw as a terrific exchange program. Both teams hobnobbed at a reception hosted by the DCM the night before the game. The Hungarians were wonderful hosts in turn; on game day, they provided a fabulous feast of prime national delicacies, including goose liver pâté.

With most embassy staff eager to cheer for the U.S. from the stands, my husband and I were designated to sit in the official box, presided over by Agriculture Minister József Torgyán. We did our best to cheer diplomatically.

Physical education teacher Géza Kuncze introduced basketball (korbball) in Hungary in 1912, after he first saw it in Germany.

During the pre-match, the embassy managed to hold off the parliamentarians, with considerable help from an Air Force master sergeant augmenting the contingent of diplomats.

The main bill did not go as well. Although we all considered Team USA invincible, the Hungarian club team, Ferencváros, managed the unthinkable, beating Lisa Leslie and her superstar squad, 73-70. A stunned Ferencváros manager admitted she expected to be trounced, saying she would have been proud to lose by only 20 to 30 points, much less actually come out the victor.

Equally stunned, several of us gathered to say goodbye to the players. Our two sons were among the embassy kids eagerly waiting with their programs for autographs. But Team USA swept out of the locker room headed for their bus, brushing aside the uncomprehending children. Parents were left to explain that, while it is important to always be gracious in defeat, even adults sometimes behave less than civilly. A teachable moment, perhaps.

Ferencváros was the only defeat on the U.S. national team’s five-game winter tour against European professional teams in Slovakia, France and Hungary.

As we debated how this debacle could have happened, the coach blamed the heavy lunch the team enjoyed from the Hungarian hosts earlier that day. “I’ll never allow them to eat liver pâté again,” she declared.

Beatrice Camp retired in 2015 from a Foreign Service career that took her to China, Thailand, Sweden and Hungary, in addition to assignments at the department and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. She is the editor of American Diplomacy Journal. The opinions and characterizations in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.