The world amateur basketball championships otherwise known in the mellifluous chirping Spanish of Puerto Rico as Mundobasket '74, made an auspicious debut in San Juan just by starting. Then the tournament upset all forecasts by ending, and on schedule. Considering the storied preoccupation of the local citizenry with ma√±ana, both occurrences were regarded as landmarks.
In between there were something like 80 or 800 or 8,000 contests among 14 teams played over a period of 12 days and the opportunity to pick up a few international impressions: that Argentineans fall down and play dead a lot; that Cubans are still surly but no longer throw chairs; that Canada is improving, Czechoslovakia degenerating and Spain is the Real Madrid. In addition the games showed that the U.S.S.R. and Yugoslavia can put on the very last all-non-black basketball match of any consequence and that Puerto Rico can mess up organizational politics and fast breaks as easily as its hotels can lose your phone calls.
Finally, that the best-kept secret in international circles is not what is on the missing tapes, but who will be the next Soviet mystery man to destroy America's credibility as hoops' top dog.
Sunday afternoon it turned out to be 25-year-old Alexandr Salnikov, who came off the bench for Russia to score 38 points and single-handedly defeat a young United States team that never knew what hit it.
The final result, a solid 105-94 victory for the U.S.S.R., was achieved with a little help from the referees who fouled out three of the U.S. big men, but it was in no way a robbery. When the championship of these games was for the taking during the last four minutes, it was the U.S.S.R., or rather Salnikov, who rose up and snatched it.
"Salnikov, my surprise trick!" said Soviet Coach Vladimir Kondrashin. And the 6'4" medical student from Kiev was certainly that to a U.S. team which figured it had settled the tournament on Saturday with a 91-88 victory over Yugoslavia.
In the round-robin competition, that triumph left Coach Gene Bartow's crew with the only undefeated record, since the Yugoslavs had previously defeated Russia 82-79. But the Americans had been coasting in preparation for the two important games at the end of the tournament. One helter-skelter affair, in which everything fell right for them, was one thing. A second straight pressure-filled contest was too much.
The time has long since passed when the U.S. can yawn through this type of competition, and the way John Lucas of Maryland, Quinn Buckner, Indiana's two-sport star, and Luther (Ticky) Burden of Utah went about their tasks in backcourt demonstrated that they and their mates were serious enough. Until Sunday the tournament belonged to Lucas, for he was the heart and soul of the American effort as well as the team's scoring leader and crowd-pleaser. Lucas and Buckner directed the attack and caused trouble on defense, and the marvelous Ticky kept entering frays from the bench to hurl in 30-footers while the red tassels on his Converse sneakers flapped in the tropical breeze. "Parade shoes," is what Lucas called Burden's footwear. "The cat's got air vents and all kinda stuff," he said. "But when I see him comin' I just ask: 'You warm, Dude?' Ticky shocks me when he misses."
"I get only 17 minutes playing time," said Burden, who favors the Billy Preston look in facial hair. "Got to throw it up while I can." While South Carolina's Tom Boswell battled the boards opposite the giant Yugoslav defending champions in the first pressure game, Ticky had to throw it up. Behind 50-41 at halftime and staggering in the face of Dragan Kicanovic's 18 points, the U.S. went to Burden and Lucas, and Burden finished with 27 points, a clear case of no Ticky, no washee.
"The U.S. team, they finally seem like fighting for country," said Yugoslav star Kresimir Cosic, as lucid as he was when he played at Brigham Young. "Always before they seem like playing for Gulf Oil or somebody."
Before the final crunch of the weekend what Lucas wanted most in the exchange of token gifts among the competitors was a shirt from the team representing the Central African Republic whom he kept referring to, ungeographically, as "the Ivory Coast brothers."
"The Ivory Coast brothers might as well give up some shirts, they sure can't win no games," Lucas said, not exaggerating. With no man over 6'5" and limited technique, the CAR came close to victory only once, dropping an 87-86 decision to the even smaller Filipinos. More typical was CAR's 92-point loss (140-48) to the Soviets.
Other countries fared better. Canada, which is gearing up for the Montreal Olympics with "Game Plan '76," upset Czechoslovakia to gain the final round, only to lose three games there by a total of five points.
Spain had American-born Wayne Brabender (who led the tournament in scoring) from the Real Madrid Club, but its big men failed to shake the effects of diarrhea. Cuba had many of the same gentle fellows who attacked the U.S. team at the World Student Games in Moscow last summer. (This time the 83-70 U.S. victory went without incident.) And Puerto Rico had controversial Coach Armandito Torres, in addition to several NCAA players from schools such as Duquesne and Jacksonville.
Alas, to the disappointment of the 7,500 capacity crowds at Coliseo Municipal Roberto Clemente, the host team won only twice in seven attempts. Torres, an Independencia who would like freedom from the U.S. and who is not partial to the neo-Ricans (Puerto Ricans living in the U.S.) who dominate the national team, clashed abrasively with his players. He took abuse from the press and local officials, too, and then the spectators got into the act. During one game Torres was approached on the bench by an emotional onlooker who was packing a .38. The policía shuffled the spectator off the premises, but the coach needed a 10-man escort himself after his team lost to Brazil.
Brazil provided an excuse for dancing and conga-drum rhythms in the aisles. A Yugoslav coach kicked a ball into the box seats, an act for which he might have had his head handed to him had it not been for further police action. But the loudest ovation of the week was reserved for a transvestite who strolled the length of the floor in a black outfit with a white straw hat and an enormous oo monogrammed on his-her chest. The scene in the lobby of the Helio Isla Hotel, where the teams lived and took their meals together, was equally lively. There representatives of all languages, races and sweat-suit persuasions would congregate to watch television, play radios, hustle groupies, exchange patriotic pins and be interviewed by reporters and translators.
Attempts to talk to Soviet star Alexandr Belov, however, were to no avail since, as translator Yuri Aisvayan explained, "Before has been written things Alexandr not say." Coach Kondrashin, seemingly inured to misquotation, revealed that the absence from the U.S.S.R. team of the tall Olympic Centers Sharmuchamedow and Dvorni was due to their "experiencing severe penalties." It was rumored the problems involved customs violations wherein the players smuggled "some woolens" into the Soviet Union.
In much the same fashion Kondrashin smuggled the lean, exciting Salnikov into the contest with the U.S. It was not that Salnikov was totally unknown. He had been biding time in the tournament, averaging in double figures and having his name misspelled in press releases. Back home, he was the leading scorer for Stroitel of Kiev. Nevertheless, in San Juan he never started a game.
In the finale, however, he came bounding down the floor shooting his rockets on the dead run, and nobody could stop him. Salnikov scored 20 points in the first half as the U.S. kept pace for a 55-55 tie. Then he hit a layup off the opening tap of the second half, and Russia never looked back.
The Soviets moved to a five-point lead, 77-72, and when the U.S. kept grinding away, Salnikov was always there to score a basket or control a rebound. He led the game with 10 of those. Twice Virginia's Gus Gerard brought the Yankee side to within one point, but both times Salnikov scored from the corner for breathing room. Then, one by one the American big men exited on fouls—Rich Kelley of Stanford, Joe Meriweather of Southern Illinois and finally Tom Boswell. Only Lucas and Burden remained to make their valiant attempts.
With about 4:30 to go, Burden hit to cut the Soviet lead to 93-88. But again came Alex-on-the-Run to blast in a jumper and the Russians skillfully protected their margin the rest of the way.
Afterward the Russians threw their coach into the air several times in understandable ecstasy. It was fortunate Salnikov did not join this activity. The Soviet coach might have hurt himself falling through the net.