There were plenty of startling revelations at last week's U.S. Olympic Basketball Trials: the precocious play of an 18-year-old Georgetown-bound man-child, 6'9" Alonzo Mourning; the spidery defense of UNLV's Stacey Augmon; the versatility of Georgia's 6'6" Willie Anderson: the fearless lead-guard play of Virginia Tech's Bimbo Coles, who raised the question of whether anyone named Bimbo can rightly be an Olympian.
But it was someone in street shoes who stole the show, or at least tried to hide it; this guy made even Olympic coach John Thompson, whose relationship with the press has never been intimate, look like the Media Man of the Year. The man in question, Bill Wall, is executive director of the Amateur Basketball Association of the U.S.A. (ABAUSA), the governing body that staged the Olympic trials. Unfortunately, Wall confuses wearing a blazer with wrapping oneself in the flag. As 93 candidates drilled at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, they were observed by some 50 NBA scouts, by representatives of athletic shoe companies and by at least one agent. The media, however, were banned on the grounds that they would constitute, in Wall's phrase, "a distraction."
Wall offered several other reasons for locking out the press—among them, that "interviews don't help in the selection process" and that "we don't need the publicity." Never mind that the trials in all other sports are open, including the one for women's hoops, which was held in April; or that the U.S. Olympic Committee finds Wall's policy appalling; or even that the public, which through its donations helps sponsor the Olympic basketball program, might appreciate the coverage. Many news organizations, including The New York Times, The Boston Globe and the Philadelphia Daily News, refused on principle to send any reporters to Colorado Springs last week, and two groups—the United States Basketball Writers Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors—considered legal action.
Finally, thanks in part to the intercession of Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt, a "pool" arrangement was hammered out by which eight reporters observed the afternoon scrimmages only and were expected to share their notes with other journalists.
May 29, 1988
But Sunday's exhibition doubleheader in Denver's McNichols Arena was genuinely public. By then, Thompson had pared the original 93 invitees to 47. Before anyone could rue the cutting of Indiana center Dean Garrett, Mourning demonstrated that he might be the man to back up shoo-in starting center David Robinson, late of the Naval Academy, who ran the floor surprisingly well for someone who has played nothing but service ball for the past eight months. In the opening five minutes of the second half of the first game, with his team trailing by nine. Mourning sank two free throws, completed a three-point play in traffic, hit a couple of jumpers and blocked two shots. When he left the floor, his team led by two, and his primary victim, Syracuse's Rony Seikaly, was left wondering what he had missed in high school. "People started off asking me if Alonzo's here because he's going to Georgetown," said Thompson before Saturday's scrimmage. "I don't hear that question any longer."
At the very least, Mourning promises to be one of the 20 or so players Thompson will take to the Georgetown campus for intensive workouts in July. The 12-man Seoul patrol chosen from that group will feature quickness rather than bulk, notwithstanding the notorious contact common in international play. Thompson's aphorism is "You can't push what you can't catch." Nor will he be overly concerned with assembling a cast of three-point shooters; instead. Thompson's troops will jealously defend three-point territory. The most scrutinized drills last week involved players' fighting over screens, denying passes to the wing and recovering to straight man-to-man alignment after double-downs on the post.
Similarly, Thompson is more likely to choose a bigger defensive guard (a Mitch Richmond of Kansas State, for example) than a pure point guard like DePaul's Rod Strickland, unless someone (B.J. Armstrong of Iowa? Bimbo of the Hokies?) proves he can defend and dish. Players like Anderson, Arizona's Sean Elliott, Bradley's Hersey Hawkins and Kansas's Danny Manning don't need a point man to lead them, provided thievery and shot-blocking get them the ball in the open floor. "We feel we have to pressure, extend the defense and go downcourt and score." says Thompson.
As part of this philosophy, Thompson figures to pick at least one defensive specialist. As of Sunday night it looked as if it could even be the little-known Augmon. After the UNLV sophomore-to-be turned in the week's only effective defensive job on Hawkins, the 1987-88 NCAA scoring champ, an assistant told him, "You did a great job on Hawkins."
"Who's he?" said Augmon.
Thompson couldn't have scripted a better line. His method of determining who his kind of player is involves more than just watching drills and scrimmages. The dorm staff spent the week trying to gauge candidates' adaptability and feel out their personalities. "I want to know if they're complaining that the toilet paper's not there," says Thompson, "rather than going out and getting the toilet paper." A short tour of Europe in mid-June, in which as many as half a dozen Olympic candidates will take part, has been billed as a shakedown cruise to get Robinson back into competitive fettle, but it will also likely serve as a chance to see whether notable talents but moody personalities such as Strickland and Florida's Dwayne Schintzius are able to function abroad as part of a team.
One dilemma that got very little attention last week was the Brent Musburger Question, which had angered Thompson when the CBS broadcaster raised it on a New York City cable TV talk show last winter: "Is John Thompson going to put a white basketball player on the U.S. Olympic team?" For the record, Duke's Danny Ferry was lackluster last week and Kentucky's Rex Chapman simply bad. But if a player who happens to be white earns a spot, look for someone in the Georgetown mold—a gritty overachiever who relishes defense and wasn't highly recruited out of high school, such as Central Michigan's Dan Majerle, Stanford's Todd Lichti or Arizona's Steve Kerr.
The race question dogs Thompson unfairly. His Olympic staff is a rainbow coalition of white, black and even female, with Our Lady of Perpetual Vigilance herself, Mary Fenlon (Thompson's academic coordinator at Georgetown), serving as a full assistant coach. Indeed, the trials showcased Thompson at his systematic and meritocratic best. Playful and candid in his daily briefings with the press, Thompson touched on many subjects, among them the decisions of some senior stars to pass up the trials, in large part to protect their NBA draft value. "They're not committing un-American acts." Thompson said. "Our system is just set up that way."
Ah, the system. With Wall so vigorously defending his, his actions fairly begged the question: Why has he so staunchly opposed the proposal that pros play basketball in the Olympics, as they do in such Olympic sports as track and field? Most of the rest of the world supports open hoops competition. Ts it out of a sincere concern that the sport might suffer if NBA players were to blow out the rest of the world? Or is it that Wall knows that as soon as such radicals as NBA commissioner David Stern have a hand in the Olympic effort, the ink-stained types will surely poison the process? Wall, who coached at Mac-Murray College from 1957-58 to 74-75, denies that his stance on Olympic pros has to do with a desire to maintain control of a fiefdom that rewards him handsomely, sends him to exotic ports of call and permits him to exercise his power more or less arbitrarily every quadrennium or so. "I'm 57 years old." he says. "I'm not going to have this job much longer anyway."
In the meantime, last week:
•An ABAUSA official confronted Tom Coulter, assistant coach of the U.S. boxing team, as several fighters assembled on Thursday in the Olympic Training Center's boxing room, which looks out on the basketball floor through a large window.
"You can't be here." the official said.
"We work out here." said Coulter.
"Well, what are you doing here now?"
"Well, don't look down there during practice."
"We're sparring in 15 minutes." said Coulter. "We'll promise, if you'll tell them not to look up here."
•This reporter, fortunate enough to have one of the pool passes, was exchanging greetings with a scout of his acquaintance when Tom McGrath. Wall's deputy, moved in. "You can't talk to anybody." McGrath said to me. "The policy is that you are here for observation only."
•When Teri Thompson, who was trying to cover the trials for the Rocky Mountain News, wanted to use the ladies' room near the gym, another staffer blocked her path—on the grounds that there might be a player inside.
"Look, it's the ladies' room." said an exasperated Thompson.
"I've got to check it out." she was told. The ABAUSA official went inside, determined that no Olympic hopeful was holed up therein and waved Thompson in. The U.S. effort to win the gold in Seoul was still safe.
"The ABAUSA people are like May flies," said Jere Longman of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "They live for two weeks and die." That's not quite accurate. As the U.S. representative of FIBA, basketball's international governing body. ABAUSA extracts fees from American individuals and teams that wish to play abroad, and sends coaches to clinics around the globe, in addition to supervising tryouts for national teams. It's a labyrinth of councils, committees, boards and other bureaucratic ballast that could easily pass for the ABAUSSR.
The no-press policy, says Wall, "was set by the games committee and confirmed by the council." That was news to one games committee member, former Olympic coach Dean Smith of North Carolina, who as Olympic coach opened the dorms to the press at the 1976 trials. "I was shocked when I was told the media wouldn't be allowed," says Smith. "I don't recall that ever being discussed."
Through it all, Thompson was clearly relishing the fact that for once he was not playing the heavy. "I wish that you could come in." he told the press. "I'm labor. You'll have to ask management." Thompson was ultimately instrumental in having Saturday's scrimmage thrown open to any interested media—though by then all but about 15 masochists had blown town. To win the gold medal, Thompson will count on a vigorous press. It's a shame the ABAUSA doesn't want its medal won the American way, in the company of the same.