John Thompson's U.S. men's basketball team shouldn't lose the gold medal, of course, but if it does, the Olympic spirit will be the poltergeist that haunts the players. The Americans beat Canada by 6 points, Brazil by 15, Spain by 44, China by 51 and Egypt by 67 last week to cruise through the preliminaries and into a top seed in the medal round. But weren't they missing something? Something intangible that the players could take with them before scattering to sundry NBA outposts, where most will be making sums to rival the GNP's of several of the countries in this Olympic tournament? Some sense that these are the Olympic Games?
'They're having fun," insisted Cynthia Cooper of the U.S. women's team, which was lodged on the same floor of the Athletes' Village as the men. "But they're kept away from us, so we don't know how much they're having fun." Not much, judging by the look of them.
The U.S. women, nearly as dominant in preliminary victories over Czechoslovakia (87-81), Yugoslavia (101-74) and China (94-79), were almost as joyless. "We would love to be tourists and visit all the wonderful places in Seoul, but that's not why we made this visit," said coach Kay Yow one day with her team gathered around her, decked out in their standard-issue SOLE GOAL, SEOUL GOLD! T-shirts.
Everyone else was having fun, or so it seemed. The Central African Republic men's coach, Joseph Marcel Bimale, snapped pictures of the delirious scene on the court after his team beat South Korea 73-70 in their first Olympic game ever. Said Fred Goporo, the team's point guard, "There isn't a bag big enough for all the memories I'll take home."
October 2, 1988
Even U.S.S.R. coach Aleksandr Gomelsky was captivating people, giving a USA Today reporter a ride on the team bus after a practice. That practice, of course, was open to the public, as were those of the U.S. Olympic teams in all other sports—except guess whose.
Since assembling in mid-July, the U.S. team's incarceration has been so suffocating that its leading player, Danny Manning, actually discussed with his agent, Ron Grinker, several weeks ago what the repercussions would be if he were to go AWOL. "It's normal," said Thompson, minimizing reports of dissatisfaction in the ranks. "There's not one of them that didn't want to get the hell out [at one time]."
On the team's first day in Korea, a Thompson apparatchik had cued up the videotape machine, contriving things so the players walked in just before scenes of Brazil celebrating its 1987 Pan American Games gold medal-game defeat of the U.S. flashed across the screen.
This time the Americans won easily over Brazil and Oscar Schmidt, 102-87. "The plan was to keep someone fresh on him the whole game," said Willie Anderson, whom Oscar had particularly abused with 46 points in the Pan Am final in Indianapolis. Dan Majerle, Mitch Richmond and Jeff Grayer all got cracks at him, too, and Oscar wound up with a harmless 31.
A strained knee threatened to keep America's Hersey Hawkins out of further competition, and slight injuries prompted Thompson, as a precaution, to bench J.R. Reid and Stacey Augmon during a 108-57 evisceration of China on Friday and a 102-35 mummification of Egypt on Saturday. Against the Chinese, Reid and Augmon spent much of the game up on their bum wheels cheering on the bloodlust. "Feel for 'em?" Thompson said when asked about the Chinese. "It never entered my mind." And for whatever reason—maybe some poltergeist that runs around in Thompson's brain—he ripped his team afterward. "Somebody may be happy, and you can't have that," he said.
No indeed. Not at the Olympics.