As the legend of Arvidas Sabonis grew to epic proportions,
encompassing vast territories that dwarfed even Bird-land, it was
difficult to separate reality from myth at the World Basketball
Championships that concluded Sunday in Spain. Was the 7 ft. 2 in.
agricultural student and Soviet basketball superstar already, at
22, a double-chinned international cross between Maradona and Andre
the Giant? Or was he just some Lithuanian barfly with Stolichnaya
elbow, a guy so storied that his countrymen sometimes order vodka by
asking for ''a Sabonis''? Was he a pampered, overrated loafabout who
chastised teammates, ordered coaching changes and seldom played hard
because he was bored with the competition? Or was he the model of new
cage brilliance, a master of the 70-foot underhand grenade pass, the
no-look running hook and, even now, after being drafted by the NBA
not once but twice, the best shamateur basketball player in the
And what of Sabonis's Soviet teammates? How quick, stylish and
machine-like were they? How frantic was their running, how perfect
their passing? How positively terrific were they? With the
mustachioed guard, Valdis Valters, and his partner, Rimas
Kurtinaitis; with 6 ft. 9 in. forward, Alexander Volkov, a
22-year-old Mick Jagger in short pants, and his opposite cornerman,
Valerei Tikhonenko, the menacing garbageman whose angularity and
ball-foraging earned him the nickname Weasel -- this was no group
of 1950s-style clunkers.
This was the team that, shooting daggers on the run, passing like
the Blazers (Portland, '77) and banging flesh and boards with equal
virtuosity all over Spain, averaged 107 points in nine victories
during the Mundobasket and in the medal-round semifinals in Madrid,
rallied from nine points behind in the last 47 seconds to tie and
then beat in overtime their hated rival, Yugoslavia.
Why was Team U.S.A., a pickup group culled from leftovers, mostly
skin and bone, raw and inexperienced, and losers besides in the
round-robin to -- por favor! -- Argentina, why was this team able to
stay in the same championship game in Madrid's Palacio de Deportes
against the mighty Soviets?
This is why:
David Robinson, the 6 ft. 11 in. NCAA tournament star, spent his
Iberian holiday learning to adapt his considerable defensive skills
from the U.S. Naval Academy's 2-3 zone to a brutal hombre-a-hombre
method, of which the old salt, Popeye, would have been envious.
Undergraduates such as Pittsburgh's big Charles Smith and Wake
Forest's little Muggsy Bogues created all sorts of problems that the
pitifully coached Soviets had never experienced while feeding off all
those Angolans and Uruguayans. And because ACC videotapes have not
yet made it to Moscow, or else Sabonis would have known that in the
vital closing moments of the final, North Carolina's Kenny Smith
would explode out of the U.S. team's cuatro rincones -- that's four
corners to you, Sabo -- and come roaring down the pipe to juke and
soar and lay in the winning bucket for the Americans' 87-85 victory.
As blase and uninterested as the Soviets seemed early (the U.S.
twice held 10-point first-half leads), as confused as they appeared
later (behind 78-60 with less than eight minutes left, Sabonis and
friends looked like, oh, Wichita State on a bad night), Mundobasket
regulars figured the defending champions had one last answer.
Bogues (10 steals, 5 assists) had long since taken Valters out of
the game with his defense. Guard Tommy Amaker of Duke had lofted
several long baskets, and up front, Robinson (20 points) and Charles
Smith (17) were giving back all they got from Sabonis. Despite all
that, U.S. coach Lute Olson of Arizona had his squad toy with the
clock, and the team became too cute and tentative.
After Sabonis finally came alive with two vicious dunks -- he
would finish with 16 points and 11 rebounds in only 27 minutes -- the
U.S. lead was 81-73 with 4:41 left. After Valdemaras (Syllables)
Khomichus, he of the Michael Douglas straight-back, wet look and of
the shot that crushed the U.S. at the buzzer in the '85 World
University Games, scored the next 10 Soviet points, the score was
85-83 with less than 40 seconds to go.
Now panic reared. The huge U.S. lead seemed likely to turn inside
out as it had at the world championship final in Cali, Colombia, four
years ago when Doc Rivers missed an open jumper and the U.S.S.R. won
95-94. But here came the rincones, and as the clock struck :25, Kenny
Smith jetted up to score the last of his game-high 23 points. ''The
opening was there all night,'' he said. ''I just had to get it high
enough over him.''
Him was Sabonis, and he never laid a mitt on the shot. Then the
Americans had only to survive a Soviet rebound basket, a botched-up
in-bounds play of their own and one final full-court,
pass-dash-and-shot play, Khomichus to Valters to No-Chance.
Eerily, both of the Smiths, racing helplessly after the Soviet
play, and Robinson, sitting on the bench, flashed at once on a moment
they had only read about: 1972 Olympic final, Munich . . . U.S. team
jobbed . . . Aleksandr Belov flinging in a gift bucket to give
U.S.S.R. the gold. Could history be repeating itself?
Bogues, who was right where he had been all the sweltering
evening, nipping at Valters's ankles, had everything covered. ''The
cat was way off-balance,'' said Muggsy. ''I said, No way that's going
in. This time it was our history.''
Back on the home front nobody cares about Mundobasket or, more
appropriately, DUNCCC -- Dis-United Nations Chaotic Cage Classic --
possibly because nobody understands what it is. Or because history
tells us the U.S. tends not to win it. In fact, while American
amateur basketball officialdom ranks the tournament down there
between the Pan Am Games and the Alpo Invitational, the rest of the
basketball universe considers the quadrennial world championships to
be even more important than the Olympics, where team water archery
and similar lounge acts clutter the landscape.
With the exception of the West German squad, which seems to have
defected to Dallas, the competition in Spain -- 24 teams playing 90
games in seven cities -- was far stronger than it was in Los Angeles
in '84. Moreover, the Americans' 96-65 gold medal rout of Spain in
L.A. may have given the U.S. a false sense of security. The Soviets
weren't there, of course, and Jordan, Ewing, Knight, et al. were a
special crew playing in a special atmosphere.
Back to reality. . . . ''We've created this challenge, now we've
got to meet it,'' said Olson. Of major concern was the U.S. record in
the World Championships: 1 for 9, the only victory coming in 1954
when the Yanks whipped Brazil in Rio. This summer early NBA entry
(Chris Washburn, John Williams, William Bedford, Walter Berry),
injuries (Danny Manning) and disenchantment (Pervis Ellison was sent
home after a practice no-show) prevented Olson from fielding a
devastating front line. And who knows how much the threat of
terrorism in Europe diminished the interest of other players?
Early on, soldiers bearing rifles stood guard on the roof of the
hotel where the U.S. players were staying, and helicopters circled
overhead and followed the team's bus. ''We can never forget the
reasons for all this security,'' said Arizona guard Steve Kerr, whose
father, Malcolm, was president of - American University in Beirut
when he was assassinated in 1984. ''I can't wait for the tournament
to be over so I can go home.'' Sorrowfully, Kerr went home early, his
right knee having blown out after a splendid 14-point performance in
the Americans' 96-80 semifinal victory over Brazil.
There were other memorable visions of the world championships to
-- The Ivory Coast's ''Committee of Animation.'' This 25-dude
cheering section and party-animal squad wore grass skirts and
animal-skin headdresses as they pounded drums and snaked through the
stands while their team lost five games by a combined score of
460-322. This was partly through lack of Desire. While Desire Bambara
hung up a DNP in the 99-63 loss to the U.S., Desire N'Drin looked
ready to n'drop.
-- The People's Republic of China coach, Qian Chenghai, whose team
attempted 32 three-point shots against the U.S. When asked how long
it would take his country to match the U.S. in basketball, Qian said,
''As long as it takes U.S. to match Chinese in Ping-Pong.''
-- Brazil's Oscar. Yeah, just Oscar to you. The 6 ft. 8 in.
''Gunboat of Mobilgirgi'' (his club team in Italy) shot 244 times in
the tournament, knocking home-standing Spain out of contention for
the final four with 30 points, nailing Cuba with 47 and lighting up
the U.S. and Alabama's Derrick McKey for 43. Oscar -- a grouch only
when he's not firing away -- concluded the tournament with a roughly
astonishing shot-assist ratio of 35 to 1.
Meanwhile the Soviet Union-Yugoslavia semifinal was merely one of
the classic athletic events of the century. Sabonis and Yugoslavia's
Drazen Petrovic, each in his fashion, have been Europe's most
dominant ''amateur'' players for several years. Defense aside, the 6
ft. 6 in., curly-haired, 22-year-old Petrovic is an NBA-caliber point
guard: an exquisite shooter, passer and as the official Mundobasket
program put it, ''an unbetterable playmaker.'' In other words, a guy
who doesn't need to posture, pout, play dirty or provoke the better
part of Europe to be recognized. His spitting, obscene gesturing and
general orneriness earned him the nickname el Perro Caliente (the
Hotdog), and crowds booed and whistled him and his Yugo mates
whenever they took the floor.
Petrovic's mortal enemy, Sabonis, has called him ''stupid,'' ''a
clown'' and threatened to ''break his skull'' whenever he gets a
chance. That the Portland Trail Blazers drafted both these fellows in
June is the joke of the year on the Continent.
/ Petrovic had little to joke about when Yugoslavia met the U.S.
in their final round-robin game in Oviedo. Olson sicced Bogues, la
Chispa Negra (the black spark, as the 5 ft. 3 in. Muggsy was lovingly
described by the Spanish media), on Petrovic from the start, and the
Yanks jumped out to a 19-2 lead. Sufficiently confused, Petrovic
(U.S. assistant coach Bobby Cremins gave him a new, printable
nickname, ''Petro'') scored but 12 points and was shut out in the
second half as the U.S. won 69-60.
Did the Yugos throw the game, or did it just look that way? Coach
Kresimir Cosic did not even play his best big man, Ratko Radovanovic
(no relation to Dustin Hoffman). He benched Petrovic at a key late
moment and was roaring with laughter after the defeat. Nobody
bothered to ask why. As Dario Colombo of Italy's Giganti del Basket
magazine said, ''What is use? The Yugoslavians are biggest liars in
Against the U.S.S.R. in the medal-round semifinal at Madrid,
however, Yugoslavia was the truth. For exactly 39 minutes and 13
seconds. With Yugoslavia leading 81-72 and 2:20 left, Sabonis fouled
Petrovic at midcourt. As an approving crowd chanted obscenities at
the Yugoslav, Petrovic pulled back his arm as if to pound Sabonis
with the ball. Then he shimmied, made buffoon faces, waved to the mob
and incited more hostility. After a Soviet foul, plastic fans and
soda cans came hurtling onto the court. An orange slammed into
Petrovic's back. No matter. Yugoslavia's lead was 85-76 with :47
The big red was finally dead, si?
Sabonis nailed a three-pointer from straight out -- banked that
sucker in. The U.S.S.R. stole the ball. Tikhonenko then hit another
three-pointer from the left side -- string (balalaika) music. The
Soviets fouled, fouled again, fouled once more, and each time, the
Yugos opted not to shoot free throws. Ultimately, the ball came to
7-foot Vladimir Divac, only 18, who was swarmed by the Soviets at
midcourt and forced into a double dribble. Soviet ball . . . four
seconds left . . . Valters on the left wing . . . bingoski! Another
three-pointer, of course, and the game was tied, 85-85, at the
buzzer. The overtime, in which Petrovic (27 points) missed on his
chance for a one-and-one and then Sabonis (25 points) hit both ends
of his, was marvelously anticlimactic. It ended at 91-90, U.S.S.R.
Later, Cremins hitched a ride back to the teams' hotel on the
Yugoslavs' bus. ''Petro wasn't there,'' he reported. ''I think he has
his own bus.''
But Petrovic doesn't have his own first-place medal. And neither
does Sabonis. NBA-bound MIAs forgotten, infancy and injuries aside,
terrorists be damned, the Americans copped all the gold in Madrid.
And poked a few holes in some legends as well. END