It Was Trial By Fire

A brutal week of basketball in Bloomington left 20 qualifiers for what could be the best U.S. Olympic team ever
April 29, 1984

What to do? Where to hide? Why me? Lorenzo Charles' quandary—the high perils of Lo—suddenly manifested itself last week as the 72 candidates for the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team underwent their vicious, exhausting three-practices-a-day, give-me-liniment-or-give-me-death ordeal.

In one scrimmage the 6'7", 252-pound Charles found himself playing man-to-man defense against 6'9", 259-pound Wayman Tisdale and monster-to-monster offense against 6'6", 284-pound Charles Barkley: in other words, between a rock and a lard place. (Only kidding, Mr. Barkley, sir.) In another scrimmage Lo Charles was chagrined over being surrounded by an opposing team consisting of Patrick Ewing, Sam Perkins, Chris Mullin, Leon Wood, Steve Alford and, oh no, Barkley again. Not all at the same time, of course, but it may have seemed-that way to Lo, who sometimes looked as if he desired no mo'. And who could blame him? The panting glut of NBA coaches, general managers and scouts who descended on the Indiana University campus took one look at the aforementioned team and started plotting how they might pile the whole crew into a pickup and slip out of Bloomington under cover of darkness to start a new franchise. Ed (White Line Fever) Manning, the ex-Bullet, ex-Bull, ex-Trail Blazer, ex-truck driver and present assistant coach at Kansas, whose son, Danny, was one of only two high-schoolers at the Trials, obviously could be shanghaied to do the honors in the pilot's seat.

"They said they was gettin' the best 72 and they wasn't tellin' no stories," said Louisiana Tech's Karl (The Mailman) Malone in the pithy vernacular of his home hamlet, which is "Mount Sinai Community, Looziana." Malone, a sophomore who has always played in the shadow of a women's team, for pity's sake, was not among the final qualifiers, but there was no dearth of other intriguing fellows whose stories we should all be hearing about from now until doomsday, or at least Aug. 10, the date of the Olympic basketball final in Los Angeles.

By that time there will have been investigative reports concerning Ewing's T shirts, Barkley's gastronomical preferences, Tisdale's comedic impersonations—he does a terrific Richard Nixon—and Michael Jordan's pool-shooting acumen. Not to mention stories about our heroes' wondrous ability to play their chosen game. You think the 1980 U.S. hockey team was hyped to a fare-thee-well? When the communications powers that be get through with America's new basketball bunch—remember, we haven't competed for an Olympic medal in eight years and haven't had a chance for vengeance against the Russkies in 12—the country will know them so intimately, the Carrington family will seem like interplanetary aliens.

A dynasty, of course, is what the U.S. built over 36 years of international basketball until 1972, when the Soviets won the gold medal in Munich in an unforgettably wild finish. That has been the only smudge on an otherwise perfect Olympic slate for the U.S., which of course couldn't compete in '80 because of the boycott.

In the old days, however, nobody else could play basketball as Americans knew it. The 1960 team, which included Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Jerry Lucas, among other semi-immortals, out-scored eight opponents by an average of 40 points a game. Since then the world has caught up. Now the worry is that Italy and Yugoslavia are our equals, and the Russians...well, U.S. coach Bobby Knight says that the young Soviet center, 7'2" Arvidas (C'est Bon) Sabonis, is "potentially the best player in the world, amateur or professional."

All of which is why Knight took time away from his Indiana coaching duties to spend part of the last two years scouting, preparing and organizing the development program which culminated in last week's Trials and in the selection of a preliminary 20-man team that must be cut to 12 (plus four alternates) by July 14.

Many longtime observers, including Knight's personal guru, Pete Newell, who coached that 1960 Olympic team, agreed that this year's Olympic camp was the best-conceived, most thoroughly coordinated and best-directed in memory. Also, that it brought together talent the likes of which the U.S. hasn't enjoyed since '60, if then. "I've never seen anything like these guys," said Newell.

"I'd take the bottom five home from here and be happy," said Iowa State's Johnny Orr, one of the 19 college coaches assembled to help Knight and assistants George Raveling of Iowa and Don Donoher of Dayton direct the Trials.

Dilettantes could quibble about who was invited: Why weren't Xavier McDaniel of Wichita State, Bernard Thompson of Fresno State and Othell Wilson of Virginia asked? Moreover, Kentucky's Sam Bowie and Melvin Turpin, Maryland's Len Bias and Memphis State's Keith Lee turned down invitations. But probably only Bowie, a member of the 1980 team that Jimmy Carter slam-dunked into oblivion, would have made the grade in Bloomington. And Bowie's survival would have been dependent on his vulnerable shins' holding up to a terrible daily pounding on the no-spring Tartan surface in the stone-cold Indiana field house.

Only after Knight reduced the squad to a workable 32 for doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday did the Olympic hopefuls get into 17,000-seat Assembly Hall to play in front of real fans rather than the press and the NBA people, and on a nice wooden floor. It was only then, too, that Knight finally came down from his Bear Bryant-style tower between the courts to more closely inspect his favorites. Or, as Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton dubbed them, "the Bobby-types."

To appreciate the skill level and work ethic demanded by Knight, consider the illustrious candidates who didn't even survive to play in the weekend games: Devin Durrant of Brigham Young, Pearl Washington of Syracuse, Kenny Walker of Kentucky, Bruce Douglas of Illinois and six members of last summer's U.S. Pan American Games team—including Ed Pinckney of Villanova, Mark Price of Georgia Tech and Michael Cage of San Diego State. And, yes, poor Lorenzo Charles of North Carolina State.

It was a daily ritual for kibitzers to guess just who the "Bobby-types" were and what kind of squad the coach was seeking. "Let's see," Sutton said, projecting the ultimate 12-man team. "Bobby might take three centers, three guards and five forwards along with Jordan."

Ah, Jordan. An automatic. A given. There are positions in basketball and there is Jordan. Granted, the sheer size, charisma and commanding presence of Barkley couldn't go unremarked. Granted, Barkley's unheralded Auburn teammate, Chuck Person, and the expatriate $225,000-a-year Italian-leaguer, Antoine Carr (on leave from his job in a pasta-making company in Milan), proved to be interesting dark horses. Granted, three unheralded guards, Terry Porter of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Maurice Martin of St. Joe's and John Stockton of Gonzaga were surprises. Nonetheless, it was almost eerie how Jordan passed through the Trials virtually unmentioned. The North Carolina junior is so marvelous a talent, possessing such a perfect basketball body that his status high above the rest was simply taken for granted. He shifted from point guard to big forward and back again, and whenever the coaches wanted to test somebody's offense, they made him play against Jordan.

Despite Knight's claims to the contrary, it was evident that All-Americas such as Jordan, Ewing (of Georgetown), Tisdale (Oklahoma), Mullin (St. John's) and Perkins (North Carolina) had already earned their spots on the team before the Trials. Others soon played their way aboard. Despite some nervous moments on the weekend, Alford, the Indiana freshman, shot and handled the ball well enough—after all, he does know how to run Knight's motion offense—to gain a share of the point-guard position, along with Leon Wood of Cal State-Fullerton. Wood played with dazzling speed and gusto, albeit with a hot-dog panache he has picked up from watching too much Magic Johnson. Wood's defensive shortcomings and annoying habit of pounding the ball on the dribble too high and too long will be corrected by Knight in a hurry.

Another clear-cut backcourt choice was Arkansas' spectacular defender Alvin Robertson, who kept blocking, stealing and deflecting every ball Barkley wasn't jamming, or snacking on. "Oh my god," said Stockton, the 6'1" tough guy who was the most creative passer in camp. "At training table I just keep my hands away from Barkley's plate."

In the beginning Barkley, who says he has never met a nickname he didn't like, was burdened by huge (natch) question marks. Would he be able to defend out on the open floor? What about his shooting range and consistency of desire? (See Richmond 72, Auburn 71, 1984 NCAA East Regional.) Would he devour every taco stand in Southern California? Most important, if he got cut, who would be brave enough to tell him? But Boy Gorge kept stacking up as many outrageous statistics—he was second in rebounds and assists at the Trials last week—as there were lines about him from the other players.

After the Round Mound of Rebound wrote Knight asking at what weight the coach preferred he report, Knight answered with the most hilarious joke of all: 215 pounds. Upon arrival, having missed that number by 69 pounds, Barkley seemed to stun his colleagues, many of whom had merely heard about his bizarre build and legendary accomplishments. Come see, villagers. It is alive!

Tim McCormick of Michigan: "Every time I hear the rims rattling I turn around and Barkley is walking away."

Mark Halsel of Northeastern: "He threw me down with his left hand and dunked with his right. I figured he didn't want to be interrupted. And that we should become friends."

Tisdale: "It's amazing the things he can do that I can't."

And Al Menendez, director of player personnel for the New Jersey Nets: "Barkley's like something off the pad at Canaveral. He flies through the air and you don't know how."

After one particularly delightful Barkley steal/behind-the-back dribble/massive dunk, the reverberations from which may have bent the spokes on every bicycle assembled in Bloomington for the annual Little 500 race, Knight whirled in his tower and just shook his head. Every evening as the rest of the players slumped off to soak their egos and bodies, Barkley stayed behind playing H-O-R-S-E and wrestling with the young ball boys. "If they cut the Breadtruck," said Bob Ferry, general manager of the Washington Bullets, "I'm rooting for the Russians."

On Monday morning the suspense finally ended with the announcement that the following 20 had made the cut:

Centers: Ewing, McCormick, Jon Koncak of SMU and Joe Kleine of Arkansas.

Forwards: Tisdale, Perkins, Barkley, Person and Jeff Turner of Vanderbilt.

Guards: Mullin, Robertson, Alford, Wood, Porter, Stockton, Martin, Vern Fleming of Georgia, Lancaster Gordon of Louisville and Johnny Dawkins of Duke.

Miscellaneous: Jordan.

It's an extremely flexible team that seems to fit exactly the formula Knight had worked diligently to come up with to win the gold in L.A.:

•Centers must be strong, lane-clogging, mobile and defense-oriented. Ewing is the mold, the nonpareil. Koncak, a 7-footer who gained confidence playing Ewing to a standoff in the NCAAs, was told by his fiancée not to come home from Bloomington if he was beaten out by his SWC rival, Kleine, whom he was sometimes mistaken for last week. Koncak, with a hard "c" and a harder body, is valuable insurance for a foul-plagued Ewing, and he's a better 15-foot jump-shooter than Patrick.

•Defenders should be rangy, fast, hyperactive, able to cover three-quarter court in pressure and man-to-man alignments and to hawk the ball aggressively to turn games around in case the team gets behind. Robertson is the supreme stopper. Fleming, Martin, Porter and Jordan furnish shock-troop support, backed up by Ewing, Koncak, Perkins and Person.

•Outside shooting is of the utmost importance, to counteract the various zone defenses the U.S. team is certain to face, and also because of the wide, trapezoidal lanes in the international game. Mullin and Alford are pure snipers from the flanks—Robertson calls Mullin "a shooting god"—while Perkins and Person are steady in baseline traffic. Jordan can score from anywhere, Fleming is the compleat garbage man and Tisdale is normally an absolute point machine. The streaky Dawkins probably earned his stripes with a 13-for-20 shooting performance in the weekend games.

•The team must have versatility. Perkins, Turner and Tisdale all could move to the pivot if necessary. Barkley could move the pivot to himself. Then there are Mullin, Fleming, Robertson and Gordon, all of whom might swing from guard to forward, and ultimately Jordan, moving here, there and everywhere.

The big surprise was that Knight kept 11 guards (counting Jordan), and that Turner was chosen over Malone and Carr. Knight's reluctance to coach someone who makes more money than he does may have been a factor in his sending Carr back to the pasta factory.

"Society couldn't handle it if the big names didn't make this team, so it was a dream come true just to be here," said Malone, a real charmer who slam-busted a couple of backboards during his freshman year, after which Louisiana Tech sent out shards of Plexiglas to the media for publicity. "I went through the trash can to get a souvenir, but there wasn't much left," said The Mailman, so named because he always delivers—at least until last week.

If this exciting collection of athletes Knight has chosen to represent their country reaches the anticipated level in L.A., they'll all deliver. Forget about Plexiglas souvenirs. We're talking gold. Society could handle that very nicely.

PHOTOAlthough Mullin (left) and Ewing (center) were shoo-ins for the team, they went at it just as hard as battlers like Bobby Lee Hurt. PHOTOJudge Knight (center) and some of his advisers (from left to right): C.M. Newton, Raveling, Henry Iba and Bill Wall. PHOTONothing and no one could escape the critical gaze of Knight, here with assistant Don Donoher, atop his Bear Bryant-style tower. PHOTOFor Georgetown's Gene Smith, there'll be no gold medal, but maybe a Purple Heart. TWO PHOTOSBarkley (below) wiped out plenty of doubts, not to mention opponents, while Ewing (right) confirmed that he can do it all—even backwards.
PHOTONo matter where he took off from or who got in his way, Jordan was mostly on target. ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)