The U.S. Olympic basketball selection committee hoisted a red, white and Carolina blue banner over its squad for the Montreal Games last week. It did not choose the best team possible because professionals were not eligible and a large number of professionals-in-waiting were not willing. But it probably did pick the best team available. Certainly it was the best available from the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Although the ACC's final representation may be reduced when the last three cuts are made, seven members of the present 15-player squad are from the ACC, including four from North Carolina. The Trials were held on the campus of North Carolina State, and the squad will be coached by Dean Smith of North Carolina. If the U.S. team fails to recover the gold medal it lost for the first time in 1972, lack of familiarity will hardly be a reason.
Approximately 50 candidates were measured, weighed, timed and considered. It was difficult to make an exact count because sickness, injury and some faintheartedness changed the number throughout the six days of the Trials. Among those who went home early was Louisville high school star Darrell Griffith; before he left, though, Griffith demonstrated why he was rated the highest leaper in camp by slam-dunking over the man with the longest reach, Clemson's 7'1" Wayne (Tree) Rollins.
Other players attracted attention by not attending the Trials at all, notably tall rebounders like 6'10" Leon Douglas of Alabama, 7'1" Robert Parish of Centenary and 6'10½" Richard Washington of UCLA. They apparently stayed away at the suggestion of agents or pro teams, fearing that an injury or a poor performance would hurt their bargaining position with the pros. To complicate matters, 6'10" Center Kent Benson of Indiana, probably the best of the tall ones, was absent because of recent surgery on his wrist.
General Manager Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics took one look at the big men who showed and said, "This team is weak down the middle. Smith's got his work cut out for him." Kevin Loughery, coach of the ABA champion New York Nets, decried the same shortage. "Some guys go to war for their country and these guys won't even play bleeping basketball for it," he said angrily.
Actually, Douglas tried to join the Trials after they began by having his coach, C. M. Newton, call Smith. Smith mulled the request for a day but refused to accept Douglas, saying it would be unfair to the players who had been participating in the twice daily three-hour sessions.
The only quality big man in Raleigh was Smith's own 6'10" Mitch Kupchak, who suffered from a swollen elbow that hampered his performance. Like most of the players on hand, Kupchak refused to criticize those who put their pocketbooks ahead of national pride. "If an agent had told me I could lose $300,000 by coming here, I wouldn't be here either," he said. "I just don't have an agent yet."
As in 1968 and 1972, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) and Bill Walton of UCLA stayed away, absenteeism permitted some previously unrecognized big men to display their talents. Kupchak's 6'10" North Carolina teammate, Tommy LaGarde, who has considerable international experience, and 6'10" Scott Lloyd of Arizona State, whose aggressive push-and-shove style is perfectly suited to the international game, both showed well and were named to the team with Kupchak.
Although Smith had only one of the 10 selection-committee votes, he advised the selectors about the qualities he wanted. With the big men, Smith was more concerned with shot blocking and rebounding than scoring; Kupchak, LaGarde and Lloyd all averaged fewer than 18 points a game last season. Smith also emphasized consistency, unselfishness and defense. "There isn't a man here who can't play offense," Smith said, "but that isn't what's going to win the gold medal for us."
Those who did not get Smith's message failed to make the team. Among the failures were Forward Wesley Cox of Louisville, who accomplished little at either end of the court, and Guard Rickey Green of Michigan, who made the mistake of shooting 27 times in his final scrimmage. A not-so-surprising casualty was Marshall Rogers of Pan American. Rogers came to camp with a basketball-sized monogram on the back of his jacket that advertised him as the national scoring champion. Privately, Rogers claimed to be a "pretty good defensive player," adding "I be trying to stay with my man everywhere he goes." But his man often went this away on the court and Rogers eventually went that away back home.
Certain players were almost automatic selections: Forward Scott May and Guard Quinn Buckner of Indiana, Kupchak and Guard Phil Ford of North Carolina and Forwards Kenny Carr of N.C. State and Ernie Grunfeld of Tennessee. Grunfeld, a naturalized citizen from Rumania, won the unofficial Patrick Henry Award by saying he wanted very much to represent his country.
All of the other selectees appeared on at least six ballots: Guards Otis Birdsong of Houston and Tate Armstrong of Duke, Forwards Adrian Dantley of Notre Dame, Phil Hubbard of Michigan, LaGarde and Walter Davis of North Carolina, Mark Landsberger of Arizona State, Steve Sheppard of Maryland and Lloyd. Landsberger was a surprise; he had redshirted at Arizona State last season after playing the previous two years at a junior college and at Minnesota. The 6'8" Landsberger impressed the voters mainly by growling as he went up for rebounds.
It is doubtful Smith wanted seven players from his own conference, and he said that he did not get three of the players he preferred. His most obvious rebuff was a plea for a fourth big man, perhaps 7'1¾" Ralph Drollinger of UCLA, who was hampered by the flu but has the shot-blocking ability and basketball breeding Smith likes. He also probably was disappointed that Bob Wilkerson of Indiana was overlooked by the selectors.
"The best selection system would let the coach pick the team himself and then give him enough time to develop it," said Smith. "We're particularly hurt by the lack of time; we have only a month and a half before the first game. Compare that to the years which other national teams have spent together. I'd like to have the 1972 team back."
With only four seniors—Kupchak, May, Buckner and Lloyd—the 1976 team is young, perhaps too young. It could also use another player of Kupchak's caliber at center. There is, however, great scoring potential with Dantley, Carr, Birdsong and Grunfeld, all of whom averaged more than 25 points a game last season, and May, who averaged 23.5.
The team's strong point will be its flexibility; most of the players are effective in two positions. May, Smith joked, "can play wherever he wants to." This flexibility, along with super overall speed, should permit Smith to run, press and substitute to his liking. However, the players also must adjust to the discipline Smith will demand. That, more than talent, may determine the final makeup of the 12-man team for Montreal. For now, the squad will practice at the University of North Carolina and travel around the country to play eight pro and three foreign teams.
Smith, the most successful coach in the history of the ACC, refuses to speculate on his team's chances. "International teams are so much better than they used to be," he said. "Our Continental Cup team lost twice to both Italy and Russia last year, and Italy is our opening opponent at Montreal. In fact, Italy just beat Yugoslavia in a qualifying tournament, and I understand that Yugoslavia is even better than Russia."
For the U.S., the best available talent will have to be good enough, even though it may not be big enough.