Unless you're an out-and-out, Panama Canal-forever type jingoist, it is really heartwarming to see what a good sport the U.S. is about Olympic basketball. Every other country gets to drill its best players as a unit for three or four years. America's top 300 or so—the pros—are eliminated right off the bat, and so are many college seniors whose ten-percenters fear they might "get hurt" at the Olympics. From what is left, a committee picks the U.S. team, then gives a coach six weeks to teach this group of strangers his system. Once the Americans arrive at the Olympics, they have to play by everybody else's rules. And for a fillip in Montreal, most of the games were held in the neighborhood hockey rink, where the court was several feet short of regulation size. That diminished the Yanks' edge in speed and lessened the effectiveness of their pressure defenses.
Finally, should the U.S. lose—or even get a scare—there is a lot of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth all around the republic over how America is losing basketball superiority. If the U.S. wins, all the patriots order another beer, yawn and say that the losers could not beat Murray State in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Well, yawn, the United States won the 1976 Olympic gold medal with a 95-74 victory over Yugoslavia in the finals, and it mattered not at all that the Americans did not get a chance to "avenge"—a favorite media word—the 1972 Munich defeat by Russia, the only defeat for the U.S. in Olympic basketball history. This time the U.S. was too quick, too deep, too smart, too versatile for any of the textbook tough-guy teams from Eastern Europe. Before the finals, the Yugoslav coach, a helpful chap named Mirko Novosel, was good enough to establish a line on the game. He made the U.S. a 2-1 favorite. Novosel is also a lawyer, and he was just giving it to his clients straight.
International basketball is strangely prefigured. Certain teams have the Indian sign on others. Yugoslavia can beat Russia on every given day; it had done so five times in a row, going back to '72 Russia drew Yugoslavia in one semifinal, with the U.S. facing Canada in the other. The day before the semis. Jack Donohue, the American who coaches Canada, made some polite conversation with Vladimir Kondrashin, the Russian coach. "Hey, you and me—Canada and the Soviets—in the finals, huh?" Donohue said. The Russian coach bowed his head in despair. "Maybe you, not us," he moaned.
August 8, 1976
With such confidence at the helm, the Russian team played scared the instant it hit the court. The Yugoslavs, a sartorially fascinating bunch—no two players wear socks of the same color—pounded to a 17-4 lead, and although the Soviets rallied to make a fight of it, they wore themselves out playing elbows and earthquakes. Vladimir Tkachenko, the massive 18-year-old Russian center whose main talent is occupying a vast area close to the basket, was completely neutralized. When the Yugoslavs were on defense, they fronted him, and since it was apparent all along that Tkachenko is not the long-sought Great White Leaper, he could not get the ball, even though he stands more than seven feet tall. When the Yugoslavs were on offense, they ran him, winded him, drove at him and turned him into Silly Putty. The better Commie team won 89-84.
In the capitalistic semi, the Canadians were no match for the U.S. By then the youngest club in the tournament, masterfully coached by Dean Smith of the University of North Carolina, was in superb form. With each preliminary game, the players had worked better together, and the move from a small hall to the 16,400-seat Forum for the final two games seemed to juice up the Yanks.
The U.S. had opened with a decisive 20-point victory over the Italians, who were clever and experienced enough (they averaged almost 27 years of age) to just miss beating Yugoslavia later. Then came a fluke game against Puerto Rico that demonstrated why Red China does not want to play Taiwan. The U.S. beat its island by only a point, 95-94, but despite the score, the mainland Americans played rather well. The problem was that the Puerto Ricans shot 64%, with two-thirds of the points coming from their starting guards. One of them, Neftali Rivera, was born on one island—Puerto Rico—but learned his basketball on the playgrounds of another—Manhattan. The other was Butch Lee, a star for Marquette who lives in New York, but 19 years ago spent just enough time in Puerto Rico to be born there.
After that scare, the U.S. flattened Yugoslavia for the first time, 112-93, in a bizarre game full of senseless whistles. Yugoslavia led 55-51 at the half, but the referees settled down thereafter and the U.S. regrouped in a zone defense. The second half of this game was a watershed for the Americans. They held together under difficult circumstances, showed ingenuity and spunk and, for the first time, found Scott May of Indiana University ready to accept the burdens he had been expected to carry.
Until then May had often been tentative, and he had not adjusted to the international game as well as the other forward, Adrian Dantley of Notre Dame. And Dantley, working mostly underneath, was playing out of position. "I'm 6'5", and May's just a bit taller. We're two small forwards," Dantley said. "So one of us had to go inside. That's not my game. I'm used to being on the wing, but we've all got to sacrifice."
Once May got his bearings in the first Yugoslav game, the U.S. was never again threatened. In the final, the Americans sprang to an 8-0 lead, and with Dantley outplaying the taller Kresimir Cosic, the former Brigham Young University star, at both ends of the floor, the Yanks kept the score doubled (44-22) as late as 14 minutes into the game. The Yugoslavs made something of a run in the second half when the referees decided it would be amusing to let them play ten-pins with the Americans for a while (Dantley got a cut over his eye that required seven stitches during this divertissement), but the losers could never get closer than 10.
Dantley and May were the offensive stalwarts throughout, but Phil Ford, the North Carolina guard, was perhaps the indispensable, one-of-a-kind player on the team. No European could cope with his remarkable quickness, with or without the ball. Quinn Buckner, the team captain, also from Indiana, exhibited his usual superior floor game and his typically unpredictable shooting. The centers—Mitch Kupchak and Tom LaGarde, two others from Smith's North Carolina team—were considered America's weakest link going in, and though they performed adequately, they could never lift the team and carry it the way other starters sometimes did. Phil Hubbard of the University of Michigan, Kenny Carr of North Carolina State and Ernie Grunfeld of the University of Tennessee were the best off the bench.
In terms of both temperament and style, it was a homogeneous crew. You could not ask for a nicer and duller collection of young men. Smith acknowledged that in selecting the players considerable weight was given to their personalities. At the trials they were asked to do various nuisance things—run, for example, not walk, to the water fountain whenever Smith said it was time to get a drink—to find out who were the gripers and who were the good scouts. By the time the squad reached Montreal, the team was one, the team was everything. The Americans often went one-on-one—indeed, this is what set the U.S. apart from the stylized European units—but it was heretical even to whisper of such individual transgressions. Would Dantley comment on his magnificent 30-point effort in the finals? No, he said, he just thought about the team. Would Ford talk about his quickness? Well, he replied, quickness is nice to have if you have a great team around you. If the Americans had been some Eastern European team, U.S. observers would have mocked those Commies, all thinking the same and spouting a party line.
Obviously, wooden Indians are the right sort of fellows to bring together for this task. The Americans' poise was memorable. They refused to panic or to get down to the gutter level of some of the other teams. In fact, it seems that the one advantage the U.S. has is that the other teams play according to the rough-and-tumble international rules. The Americans must adapt for a couple of weeks every four years, but in between they play their own game and refine its subtleties. The others must spend so much time defending themselves, playing a game that revolves around fouls, that their natural progress is impeded.
Of course, the U.S. will have one major disadvantage in 1980, because Russia will have the homecourt advantage. This may not be enough to stop the U.S. men but should make it all but impossible for the U.S. women to challenge the Soviets. Women's basketball was included in the Olympics at Montreal for the first time, and the Russians, who have not lost a tournament game since 1968, were so much better than any of the other five entries that it might have been best if the women's play had been stopped out of mercy, the way boxing matches are.
The main attraction in the competition was 281-pound Iuliana Semenova, who is listed at 6'11" but is clearly much taller. A lefty who wears sporty red-white-and-blue wristbands, Semenova is ponderous, to be sure, but she is not without a nice touch and she works diligently at all times. To her friends, she is Lasta, a warm diminutive, and she is known as a dear and happy person. She did not march in the opening parade, lest she call attention to her height, but she was often seen in the Olympic Village, striding about with her smaller teammates.
It was no pleasure to watch Lasta on the court, because many cruel people booed and taunted her efforts. It was best when the Russians got way ahead (which seldom took long), so that she could sit on the bench unmolested, then get back to her books and music when the game was over. By contrast, the Soviets' second-leading scorer, a 5'9" guard named Tatjana Ovetchkina, deserved calumny; she was quite possibly the dirtiest performer in the Games regardless of age, sex, race or national origin.
U.S. Coach Billie Jean Moore's women lost their first game to Japan, took the obligatory beating from Russia (112-77), but refused to fold. They won the silver medal and a great deal of prime-time shilling from ABC; it was as if the network was getting ready to replace Charlie's Angels with a women's basketball league next January. Julienne Simpson steered the team, Lucy Harris, the 6'3" center from Delta State, was the Americans' high scorer (15.2 points per game) and three other U.S. players—Nancy Dunkle, Patricia Roberts and Ann Meyers—were also among the Olympic scoring leaders.
The women thus have a fine nucleus for a continuing national team—wait until 1984—while the men go on to the pros. Dean Smith says he will not return, either, but his role this time was crucial. In the past, men like John Wooden did not want the job of Olympic coach because of the political hassling. Smith's predecessor, Henry Iba, past his coaching prime, tried to force an antique style upon his young charges. Smith took the job even though he knew he could not select his own team. But if, as seems likely, that rule is changed, Smith will have started a pattern whereby a leading coach will be honored with the job each Olympiad. "They change the players every time," Smith says. "They might as well change the coach, too.