U.S.Versus Them Team U.S.A. seeks revenge, at last, for the 1972 loss to the U.S.S.R.

September 13, 1988

FOR 16 YEARS NOW THEY'VE BEEN sitting there, waiting to be
claimed. They're squirreled away in a bank vault in Munich, gathering
dust, and maybe a bit of tarnish, too, inasmuch as they're made of
Silver is the point. No one on the 1972 U.S. basketball team
really wants a remembrance of that Kafkaesque ending to the Olympic
championship game that the Soviet Union won 51-50 after being allowed
to play the final three seconds of a game the U.S. thought it had
already won (the second-place medals were shunned in protest). To
millions of Americans who saw the tape-delayed travesty, the loss
remains a painful memory.
It's haunting not so much because it's the only defeat the U.S.
has ever suffered in Olympic basketball, but because it still hasn't
been atoned for. In 1976 the Soviets failed to reach the gold-medal
game, leaving the U.S. the hollow satisfaction of beating Yugoslavia
in the final. In 1980 the U.S. didn't show. In 1984 the Soviets
Of all the psychological baggage that David Robinson, Danny
Manning and the rest of coach John Thompson's team take to Seoul, the
'72 loss constitutes several steamer trunks' worth. The problem is
that the Soviet Union is no longer the Americans' only threat. In the
'80s alone the U.S. has lost in major international competitions to
Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Yugoslavia, which beat the U.S. three
times last summer. ''Forget the tradition of the Soviets,'' says
David Turner, a British official of FIBA, basketball's international
governing body. ''Right now I'd say the Yugoslavs are probably 15
points better ((than the U.S.S.R.)). In one game, they'd give the
United States the most trouble.''
The Yugoslavs are young but not green, big but far from clumsy,
and frighteningly deep. The young stars include 6 ft. 11 in. Vlado
Divac, the Gypsy giant, and 6 ft. 9 in. Tony Kukoc, a three-point
wizard. Drazen Petrovic, the supremely confident guard, is the player
Thompson's pressure defense will have to rattle; and if the Yugos go
with Divac and 7-foot Stojan Vrankovic as Twin Towers, the U.S. could
be in trouble. Thompson has rightly decided to assemble a team that
will get offense from its defense, but the Americans won't have much
outside shooting.
Many of Thompson's winnowing-out drills at the Olympic trials
involved determining who could defend the three-point shot -- as if
he were choosing his team expressly to stop Brazil, whose game is
trey-and-pray. ''It can be suicidal,'' says Brazilian coach Ari Vidal
of his strategy of giving the ball to Oscar Schmidt (see following
story) and Marcel Souza outside. ''But it usually works.''
Spain, the 1984 silver medalist, won't have ex-Trail Blazer
forward Fernando Martin or injured center Fernando Romay; if Spanish
coach Antonio Diaz-Miguel weren't the best in Europe, his team could
probably be taken lightly. New Yorker Jack Donahue is making the last
of his 17 seasons as Canada's national coach an Olympic farewell. The
Canucks won't medal, but they have mettle: they split their first
four games in the Americas qualifier in Uruguay, yet squeaked in.
Puerto Rico coach Armandito Ortiz says of his team, ''We could
beat Goliath with our fists, but we could also lose to David.'' The
islanders have a fine frontcourt -- anchored by Jose Ortiz (a 1987
NBA first-round pick of the Utah Jazz out of Oregon State, who
elected to play in Spain last season) -- but also have the problem
of how to get them the ball. Australia has good size and promising
young players -- the Aussies nearly beat the U.S. juniors last summer
-- in addition to 6 ft. 6 in. Andrew Gaze, whose 36.9 points a game
led the Australian league last season.
China might make some noise if Song Tao -- a 6 ft. 9 in. Atlanta
Hawks draftee -- weren't out with a bum knee. The other nations in
the 12-team Olympic field are the host South Koreans; the obscure and
mysterious Central African Republic; and Egypt, which won four games
on a tour of Greece in May on virtually empty stomachs -- it was the
Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the entire team was fasting.
Still lurking in the draw opposite the U.S. is the Soviet Union,
which continued its whammy over the Yugoslavs by beating them in the
European qualifier. ''Everyone thinks they're mechanical, like wooden
soldiers,'' says Dan Peterson, a long-time coach in Italy. ''But they
could make a bunch of guys on the playgrounds of Watts look
overcoached.'' Don't make the mistake of calling them Russians,
either: Their best players are Baltic, and they bear names like
Sharunas Marchulenis, Valdemaras Khomichus, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Titt
Sokk and Arvydas Sabonis.
It appears doubtful that Sabonis, the 7 ft. 3 in. center with a
bad Achilles tendon, will play. His Soviet surgeon has argued against
it, saying it would be ''like putting him on the guillotine.''
Sabonis's health is a sore spot with Thompson, who ripped the Trail
Blazers, owners of Sabonis's NBA rights, for aiding his
rehabilitation. Thompson railed intemperately about how the Blazers
were fulfilling Lenin's prophecy -- by handing the communists the
very rope that would be used to hang the capitalists. ''Portland is
just trying to protect its investment,'' Thompson says. ''I
understand it's a business. I love our system -- I'm a capitalist.
But we've got to draw the line. I've always been accused of having an
us-versus-them mentality, and I'm proud of that in this case --
because it is us versus them.
''Each year it gets more difficult ((to win internationally))
unless we use professional athletes. We can't hide our eyes and cover
our ears and say the system is not catching up with us. We're not
talking about just walking in and picking up the gold medal anymore.
That day is gone. The Romans always won, too, didn't they?''
All summer long Thompson and his staff have proceeded warily,
scouted exhaustively and shielded their players almost compulsively.
It's as if . . . well, as if an empire were in its late stages. And
it sounds as if the heavy security in Seoul will come as a relief.
''I'll feel real comfortable in the Olympic Village,'' Thompson says.
''We're not gonna have any guests just hopping in on us there. With
those guards, those barbed-wire fences, they're throwing the rabbit
in the briar patch.''