IT CAN HAPPEN

The U.S. men's basketball team may be highly favored, but it's vulnerable to attack, and Spain, Italy and Yugoslavia are the assailants most likely to do the deadly deed
July 17, 1984

Don't question Dan Peterson's patriotism. He's as American as they come—grew up in the Midwest, went to one Big Ten school and apprenticed as an assistant coach at another. Just because he has chosen the expatriate's life in Italy doesn't mean he has lost his sense of country, and don't question his credentials. He's short in stature but long on success: During 13 seasons of coaching abroad, he has won two Italian League titles and finished second in the European Cup championship three times, developing a reputation as one of the finest coaches on the continent. We'll call him, as Italian fans do, Little Big Dan.

To Little Big Dan, thinking about it isn't a seditious act, just a healthy didactic exercise. And in the comfort of his spacious apartment in the middle of Milan, he has thought about it. A lot. What's it? Just this: Soviets or no-Showiets, the U.S. basketball team can be beaten for the gold medal this summer. The coaches of the three teams with the best chances of giving the favored hosts the troy-ounce bounce—Italy's Sandro Gamba, Spain's Antonio Diaz-Miguel and Yugoslavia's Mirko Novosel—all speak guardedly about what strategies they might employ against the U.S. But not Little Big Dan. He will tell you exactly how it can happen.

You probably already know about international rules. They're different from the NCAA's. Players get away with more contact. "Many international teams play a bumping defense," says Gamba. "In the States, maybe only Kentucky does." A wider, conical lane, which is 19'8" across the baseline compared with 12 feet under NCAA rules, puts a premium on passing over dribbling and makes quickness almost as important near the basket as height. The continuous play rule—a referee doesn't handle the ball after a turnover in the back-court—rewards experience, speed and alertness.

But, says Little Big Dan, "The wide lane, all that stuff, doesn't matter. Those are subtle things that the U.S. players should be able to handle if they're prepared." And Little Big Dan doesn't doubt for a minute that Bobby Knight, the U.S. coach, will have his team ready. No, the American team will face more fundamental problems. Little Big Dan sees three, all related to one another: the 30-second clock, the zone defense and the jump shot.

"The greatest handicap the U.S. players will have to overcome is the 30-second clock," he says. "They're going to have to attack. They'll have to play instinctive offense, which is something college basketball doesn't teach them." Little Big Dan, as we'll see, isn't a great fan of the college game. "The U.S. is only going to have 30 seconds to get a shot, and the Americans aren't going to get an easy layup, because most European teams play good defense, and a lot of them play zones."

Hence, the second problem. "If you're attacking, you can beat a zone. The great thing about a 30-second clock is that it forces you to attack rather than outwait a zone defense. But in college ball you're taught to work for a layup. The U.S. had better be willing to take and be able to make the 17-foot jump shot."

Which brings us to problem No. 3. Outside of Chris Mullin, and perhaps young Steve Alford, the U.S. team lacks pure shooters. "I don't usually coach a zone, but I might say, 'Let's build a tent around Patrick Ewing and his friends and see if your little people can hit jump shots,' " Little Big Dan says, practically rubbing his hands in glee.

So you throttle the Yank attack by packing the defense in, seeing if the Americans have a shooter who can open it up. But Little Big Dan isn't finished. There's his own offense, which would have to score against a Knight defense. And Little Big Dan thinks it can be done. "Knight believes in pressuring whoever has the ball. But the international player is mature. He's older than the American kid, and he's seen the double team enough to know when and how to kick the ball away.

"I'm going to move the ball around the perimeter, make the U.S. work hard. And I'll whip it inside, challenge the Americans in there. Hey, their entire team is going to have to adjust to 'athletic' basketball. They use a word over here to describe American college ball: 'scholastic' By that they don't mean high school. They mean very fine, precise—pretty.

"Now, I'm not saying I'd want to start a fight. But every shot will be contested. I'd declare war for every rebound, and open season—that means spending a few fouls—on any screen the Americans set. Do they have people who can battle for rebounds for 40 minutes with guys who are five to 10 years older?"

Give Little Big Dan the Spaniards. He'd like his chances with Spain, a team that comes out running and doesn't stop (see box, page 340). "You say Knight's going to eat that up?" he says. "Well, when they keep running and all their shots keep going in, he's not going to eat that up." Spain runs a sophisticated NBA-style break, with turn-outs (continuous motion), secondary and tertiary options, the whole shebang, and the Spaniards will run it anytime—off a rebound, after an opponent's basket and especially off a turnover, taking advantage of that quick inbounds rule.

And Spain has already beaten a top-flight U.S. team, 109-99, in the preliminary round of the 1982 world championships in Bogotà, Colombia. That squad was coached by Bob Weltlich, the former Knight assistant who is now at Texas. To be sure, Spain shot very well in that game—55.5% to be exact—but that really wasn't a fluke, because the Spaniards were getting many easy hoops off their running game. Says former UCLA guard Bill Sweek, who saw that game, "The U.S. ran a motion offense. The guards would come down to the baseline to set picks and be out of position to stop Spain's break." Knight, we need hardly be reminded, favors just such a motion offense.

"Diaz-Miguel is a fast-break coach who'll live and die with what he does best," Little Big Dan says. "With Spain, I'd try a tactical game, anything to avoid post-up, muscle-on-muscle, body-to-body play. I'm 100 percent sure that's what he's going to do. If they get running and get shooting.... That's how they beat Russia [95-94 in the 1983 European championships]. As they say in Italy, they're vaccinati. They've been around the block a few times."

And what of Italy? "With the Italian team I'd play Knight the most straight-up game of all," says Little Big Dan. "Hurt him with the outside shot. The Italians have a young guard named Antonello Riva. He'll fire from anywhere, even beyond 25 feet, and you'd better get in his face, because they're like layups to him. If Knight puts Michael Jordan on Riva, Jordan'll hold him to 15—on five three-point plays. Basket, foul, free throw; basket, foul, free throw...and Jordan has fouled out."

The Italians could defeat the U.S. in L.A., if only because they set a precedent of sorts by beating the Soviets 87-85 in Moscow. Italy did that in the 1980 Olympic semifinal round, and without unleashing the controlled fast breaks that Gamba favors. In other words, Italy beat the Soviets at their own half-court game, with picks and rolls and shots from the foul circle—and with a superior defensive job by swingman Romeo Sacchetti on the Soviets' star guard, Sergei Belov.

If the U.S. and Italy meet—at press time the Olympic draw hadn't been made, but it's highly probable that the Americans will have to beat each of their three main challengers at least once if they're to win the gold medal—Sacchetti will be the man primarily responsible for guarding Jordan, though not by his lonesome. "Gamba will play a man-to-man defense with rotating help," Little Big Dan says. "He'll stray from man-to-man only if he's seen other teams have success with a zone. On offense, he'll get the ball to Dino Meneghin [see box, page 347]. Meneghin is like Bad, Bad Leroy Brown or, to put it another way, Mark Gastineau in a basketball uniform."

As for the Yugoslavs, "They'll be the most unpredictable opponent for the U.S. team," Little Big Dan says. "Knight won't be able to get a line on them, and Novosel will want it that way. They know no fear. For years their best guys have been playing with and against Americans in Europe. If you underrate them you're making a sad mistake. They're white playground players [see box, page 352]. Try to foul a Yugoslav, he'll change hands and make a three-point play on you. And these guys can jump. They do not have the disease."

Although the Yugoslavs are weak in individual defense, that may actually prove to be a blessing against the Americans. Yugoslavia shouldn't be tempted to play the U.S. man-to-man. Certainly Little Big Dan wouldn't be tempted. "I'd put three guys around Ewing and dare the others to beat me," he says. The Yugoslavs play with almost fanatic passion, and they have a geriatric frontcourt that will look to Novosel, who guided the Yugoslavs to glorious triumphs in the '70s, for inspiration. "If Novosel decides to try to squeeze one last thing out of the old guys, he's the only man who could do it, because they all love him."

Spain, Italy and Yugoslavia aren't the only countries with a shot at upsetting the U.S. At the Pan American Games in Caracas last summer, Brazil came within three points of beating Jordan, Sam Perkins, Wayman Tisdale & Co. Mexico, which didn't even qualify for the Olympics, went out to a 20-4 lead against that same U.S. squad before losing. Canada beat a weaker U.S. team at the World University Games in Edmonton earlier last summer. And Uruguay defeated the Canadians last May in the American Olympic Qualifying Tournament in S√£o Paulo, Brazil.

The bottom line is that the other basketball-playing nations are steadily catching up to the U.S. The first clear sign of American vulnerability was the 51-50 loss in the gold medal game to the U.S.S.R. in the 1972 Olympics, the first and only time the U.S. has been beaten in the Games. It was as much a harbinger as it was a fluke. Ultimately, of course, that game was decided by an official from FIBA, the sport's international governing body. But remember that the U.S. trailed by as many as eight points with 6:07 to go.

While the Kafkaesque series of rulings that ended that game surely won't happen again, least of all in L.A., observers other than Little Big Dan think the U.S. could be headed for a fall anyway. "This American team will be the weakest of all time," says Aldo Giordani, editor-in-chief of Italy's weekly Super Basket. He ticks off the names—Sam Bowie, Melvin Turpin, Keith Lee—of the big men who didn't even show for the trials. "It will be weaker even than the '72 team [Doug Collins, Tom McMillen, Tommy Burleson, et ah], which was very strong on defense, but weak on offense. American talent is the best in the world. But their players are 20 years old against men who've played 80 games each year for 10 years. The U.S. player has taken maybe 5,000 shots in games in his life. The others have taken maybe 50,000."

The U.S. does make it hard on itself, playing under different rules and with different officials than the rest of the world and only rarely meeting the national teams they oppose in each Olympics. Knight's idea for a preparatory exhibition tour of nine games, seven of them against teams of NBA veterans, was a good one. But the tour wasn't the same as playing in the intense, eight-and 12-team tournaments—with refs sanctioned by FIBA—that international teams routinely enter.

"When you play nine games in 13 days in the Olympic environment, you're always going to get upsets," says David Turner, a FIBA official. "The biggest problem the U.S. team will face is the absence of experience, given the intensity and what's at stake in front of a home crowd."

Still, most everyone considers the U.S. the favorite. "Sin ninguna duda," says Diaz-Miguel. "Without any doubt. I don't think the American team will lose any games." Adds Novosel, "They're the best in the world and they're playing at home. I don't think we have a chance." And Enrico Campana of Italy's La Gazzetta dello Sport says, "We don't have any chance because the Americans have a coach like Bobby Knight."

But if it is the favorite, the U.S. isn't a prohibitive one. It could lose. Some worst-case scenarios:

•On three straight possessions in the final moments of the gold medal game with Italy, Jordan, on clear-outs, begins his pet rocker-step move on the wing. Three straight times he's called for traveling by the same official, and the Americans fritter away a small lead. The ref, a squat veteran of five Olympics, in his life has seen only one living thing move as quickly as Jordan: A certain insect indigenous to the Southeast Asian province he calls home. And, the ref figures, since Jordan is human, he must be moving his pivot foot too soon. Point is, FIBA refs don't give the benefit of the doubt to a player beginning his drive the way NCAA refs do. Since it took all of Jordan's freshman season at North Carolina for ACC officials to concede legality to his rocker-step, there's no reason to expect that Olympic refs will do so in 13 days.

•The U.S. team, so accustomed to working in a predominantly man-to-man environment during Knight's practice camps and the NBA exhibitions, sees nothing but zone in the Olympic tournament, including this fateful day, in an early game against Spain. Mullin is sent in to hoist shots from the wing, but Diaz-Miguel uses a trap for much of the second half and Mullin rarely sees the ball. And when he does, he rushes his shots and is ineffective. Then, even when the Spaniards drop back into a straight zone, he can't hit. Remember St. John's NCAA East first-round loss to Temple last March? Mullin, a .904 free-throw shooter, missed the front end of a one-and-one with :08 left. He's a great shooter—but not impervious to pressure.

•For years Yugoslavia had a feisty guard named Dragan Kicanovic who, in a particularly rough 1983 European championship game, walked over to Italy's Renato Villalta and kicked him in the groin. Kicanovic has retired, but his kind of combative spirit, if not occasional madness, is still with the '84 Yugoslav team. Early in its game with the U.S., 6'10", 235-pound center Rajko Zizic nestles a routine elbow in Ewing's solar plexus. Ewing, one of the few Georgetown students not majoring in diplomacy, reciprocates. The officials banish both players, to the U.S.'s greater detriment. The Yugoslavs dart through what's left of the American defense and simply outscore the U.S. the rest of the way.

•Gamba and Diaz-Miguel are reverent disciples and friends of Knight. In that way, they're not much different from scores of American coaches, with whom Knight has never minded sharing his basketball theories. Knight is so open because he believes execution, not newfangled strategy, ultimately wins games. Fine. But on this day Spain is surprised by nothing the Americans do, and the Spaniards execute better. They shoot better, stay out of foul trouble better and make fewer turnovers. Knight's response: patience. Now, Knight could never rival Hank Iba, who was the U.S. coach in Munich, as a devotee of ball control—but, like Iba, he's loath to let talent run free, lest it run amok. But sometimes you've got to take that risk.

•In assembling his team, Knight decided to keep slow, bruising frontcourt reserves like Joe Kleine, Jon Koncak, Tim McCormick and Jeff Turner on his roster of regulars and alternates because he figured he'd have to pound with Italy and the Soviet Union. But now he's up against the nimbleness and guile of the Yugoslavs, who pull off an upset of the foul-plagued U.S. The postmortems gibe the U.S. for being out-quicked. Where was Charles Barkley, just one of several players who could have provided a little boogie with his beef? Watching the sad affair in a Leeds, Ala. pizzeria.

Does this sound like Star Wars stuff? Think another Munich-type upset is more likely to occur than any of the above? Maybe. Or maybe there'll be another Puerto Rico. No, not Knight, in a variation of his 1979 run-in with a San Juan policeman at the Pan Am Games, losing his cool in L.A. and laying out a referee for upbraiding him in Spanish, but a replay of the '76 Olympics. That year Puerto Rico, led by then Houston Rockets coach Tom Nissalke, came within a point of upsetting the U.S. in an early-round game. The game was played on the Americans' terms, a 95-94, up-and-down affair. That Puerto Rican squad was more than a ragtag bunch of islanders, with a ringer guard—Puerto Rican-born, Bronx-bred, Marquette-schooled Butch Lee. It was a team that could play the American game almost as well as the mainlanders on that day.

This summer's Puerto Rico could be any one of a number of teams. (Fortunately for Knight, it can't be the puertorriqueños themselves, who didn't qualify for L.A.; surely that team would have been his most jacked-up opponent.) "If the U.S. doesn't come away with the gold medal, it'll be because they're victims of their own circumstances," says FIBA's Turner. Before 1972, the U.S. could win the gold by throwing together almost any kind of team. No longer. "To maintain international supremacy today," says Turner, "you must constantly expose yourself to that environment and field the best players available." The U.S. does neither.

At least there's no chance that any team will take the Americans by surprise. Stateside Cassandras like Al McGuire have been warning for years of the shrinking international basketball gap. Knight himself saw the Italians' impressive European title victory in France last year, and quickly pronounced them more formidable than the Soviets. Knight has dispatched assistants to scout teams in both hemispheres. And he intends to make his players well aware of the dates and scores of every American loss in international play. It can happen, because it has happened...but we won't let it happen. That sort of thinking.

Which brings to mind one intangible advantage the U.S. has over its rivals. The best national teams are, essentially, professional: older, more mellow, perhaps even a bit jaded. Gamba recognizes this, and a while back he halfheartedly proposed that no Italian player be permitted to play for his country in more than one Olympics. That way players would always come to him hungry.

The U.S. doesn't have to contrive that attitude. "You only get one chance to play for the gold medal, to play for your country," says Scott May, a gold medal winner on the '76 team, now playing in Italy after a foreshortened NBA career. The best American college players are grateful for that chance; for one thing, it's their only opportunity to play together before going their separate ways to seek pro fortunes. They generate an enthusiasm, an authentic Olympic spirit.

"You know when the U.S. beat Yugoslavia [in the gold medal game] in 1976?" Little Big Dan says. "It was during the introductions, when Phil Ford and Quinn Buckner came out and went powpowpowpow! with the fives."

Want that gold medal, America? Show some D. Flash the post. Deal some licks. But show some spirit, flash the pearly whites and deal a little skin, too.

TWO PHOTOSTo each coach, his own strategy: under Diaz-Miguel (far left), Spain runs; under Gamba (left), Italy shoots and plays D; under Novosel (right), Yugoslavia applies the beef. PHOTOItaly's 6'8", 243-pound Meneghin is Europe's best player. PHOTOSpain's Dr. Corbalan can operate at the point. PHOTODalipagic still hasn't passed his prime as Yugoslavia's best shooter. PHOTOGamba is no closet fan of his U.S. coaching rival.

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)