For spreading only 168 pounds on his 6-foot-7 frame -- and being on the receiving end of a Charles Barkley cheap shot at the 1992 Barcelona Games -- Herlander Coimbra became the poster child for the underdevelopment of African basketball. A free throw Coimbra sank after Barkley knocked him to the floor represented Angola's only points in a 41-1 run during a game that emblemized the gap between the American Dream Team and basketball's Third World.
Fast-forward 16 years to Tuesday night's 97-76 U.S. defeat of the defending African champions. This time it was Angola dishing out the hard fouls, at least in the first quarter. A short time later, forward Felizardo Ambrosio could be seen running a little mouth at Deron Williams of the U.S. Angola, a team that has won seven of the last eight African titles, hasn't just muscled up physically, but mentally, too.
Midway through the second quarter, reality set in. The Redeem Team's LeBronJames blocked an Ambrosio shot so ferociously that the Angolan wound up on the deck. And with its depth and size, the U.S. took rapid control over a team with no regular taller than 6-foot-7 -- even if Kobe Bryant's outside shooting woes continued, leaving him 1-for-15 over two games from the shorter-than-the-NBA's three-point stripe. "They were expecting to beat us by 60 points or more," said Angola's Armando Costa afterward.
Considering that they played without their finest player -- Olimpio Cipriano, the 6-4 MVP of Angola's national league, who was out with a bum shoulder -- the Africans can point with pride to a loss that marks continued progress. At the Worlds in 2006, Angola won three times; gave both France and Spain a run; and took Germany and Dirk Nowitzki to three overtimes behind Cipriano's 33 points.
Last summer, the African champs rolled through the Afrobasket to qualify for Beijing, scoring almost 96 points a game, and no one came within single digits of them. Angola resembles a high-end Division I college team, not unlike JerryTarkanian's center-less, fit and fearless squads at UNLV 15 to 20 years ago.
His country may be buried in breathtaking debt, but President José Eduardodos Santos, the ex-hoopster who guided Angola through a seemingly endless war against a rebel insurgency, can still find millions in support for the national team. Players culled from Luanda's squalid musseques ingest up to 5,000 calories a day at the city's high-end restaurants, and pack that energy onto hard bodies with a rigorous weight program. The government is now leading an initiative to build indoor basketball facilities in cities beyond the capital, hoping to leverage the tradition the national team has put in place.
Contrast Angola with Cameroon, which sends scores of talents to U.S. colleges -- but has such a dysfunctional basketball infrastructure that, at last month's Men's Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Athens, the Proud Lions threatened to go on strike to protest their treatment at the hands of the federation.
Tuesday's undercard, in which Spain needed overtime to beat China 85-75, had much more relevance to the ultimate disposition of this tournament than the Americans' run with Angola. The hosts led the defending world champs until the final three minutes of regulation, coming tantalizingly close to what would have been China's greatest basketball victory. With Yao Ming and Wang Zhizhi giving Pau Gasol and his brother, Marc, a stout challenge in the post, it was a mesmerizing game of half-court sets and grinding inside play.
In that way, Spain vs. China was essentially different from the home team's encounter with the U.S. on Sunday night, which featured 22 Redeem Team dunks, most of them on the break.
Coimbra became a basketball coach upon retirement, and a year ago, his club team went bust. According to former teammate Joaquim Gomes, Coimbra was watching with scores of his compatriots back in Luanda. "You have a game against the U.S., definitely, everybody's going to be watching," Gomes said. And in Coimbra's case, surely also feeling pride in the rise of his old team.