This time the United States lost its Olympic basketball summit with the U.S.S.R. before the tip-off, not after the final horn. When both teams wanted to open the game shooting at the same basket, Soviet coach Alexander Gomelsky produced a coin. "Heads," called Bill Stein, the U.S. team manager. The head was Lenin's. And the coin came up tails.
After that, nobody in a FIBA (international basketball federation) blazer had to come out of the stands to put another three seconds on the clock as happened in Munich in 1972. That was because, time and time again, a Lithuanian in short pants virtually went into the stands to put another three points on the scoreboard. The Soviets' 82-76 subjugation of the U.S. in the Olympic semifinal was hardly a reprise of '72.
It's not so much that the U.S. wasn't supposed to lose. Very simply, no one in the States had imagined what, if it were to happen, it would look like. Now that he had been through it, U.S. center David Robinson was asked what had been missing. He thought for a bit, then said, "We didn't have enough points." Then he added, "Losing—I don't think it was in anyone's mind."
Each of the other 11 teams in the Olympic draw spent the fortnight limning ways to beat the pressing Americans, the only run-and-stun team in Seoul. Brazil's Marcel Souza saw a chance for the Soviets—if they controlled the pace. "If they try to run," he said a bit dramatically, "it is a covenant of death."
October 9, 1988
The Soviet players wouldn't try to run. Three of them had sat through the patient Canadians' six-point preliminary-round loss to the U.S., and those who hadn't been there watched a tape. Then they knew: Titt Sokk, the Estonian quarterback, would get the ball through the backcourt. He would whip it to center Arvydas Sabonis in the middle of the forecourt, just over the time line. Sabonis, who's 7'3¼", would pivot, peer over the American press and find his ethnic brethren: the marvelous Lithuanians Rimas Kurtinaitis, Valdemaras Khomichus and Sharunas Marchulenis, or the young Russian Alexander Volkov. They in turn would begin the Soviet offense, a splendid choreography of swing passes, weakside movement and precision jump-shooting.
The U.S., playing defense defensively, looked like losers from the start. After a couple of minutes Thompson sat Danny Manning—he had two fouls—down for the rest of the half. Incredibly, Manning wouldn't score a point all game. Meanwhile Kurtinaitis and Marchulenis were letting fly three-pointers that inexplicably went unchallenged. Each made three by halftime, while the Americans, down 10, had yet to score a fast-break basket. Thompson's absolute faith in defensive pressure creating scoring opportunities—"To have a prayer, we have to play this way, without exception, all the time," he had said during the team's August exhibition tour—looked ripe for some second-guessing. "It's harder to catch up against a team as mature as they are," he acknowledged in defeat. "You've got to try and rattle them, and a mature team isn't going to get rattled."
The second half must have seemed a phantasmagoria to the U.S. players: the Soviets getting five cracks at the basket during one trip downcourt; Marchulenis and Volkov playing what seemed like forever with four fouls each; little Charles Smith IV stumbling on a brazen drive to the basket as the last seconds ticked off.
The Soviet team had played a nearly perfect game. Where had the Americans fallen short? In effort, thought Willie Anderson: "We didn't have enough guts to get down on the floor for the loose balls." But no one else, Thompson included, shared that view publicly.
Others saw a lack of poise. "That competitive relationship we have with [the U.S.S.R.] is going to bring out some anxiety," Thompson said.
More three-point shooters, and an offense to get them open, would have helped. But the strained knee keeping Hersey Hawkins out of the medal round won't wash as an excuse—not when Kurtinaitis alone had more treys for the tournament than the entire U.S. team.
Meanwhile Sabonis, who in the early games of the tournament looked puffy and slow after a year and a half of virtual inactivity because of a bum Achilles tendon, grew into his role as the hub of the Soviet offense. "Sabonis, 18 months no practice," Gomelsky said. "My opinion, Sabonis O.K. because he is great talent. My opinion, Sabonis every game better and better. In final, Sabonis O.K." With 13 points, 13 rebounds and a constant defensive presence inside, Sabonis was ahead of schedule and the Soviets were on their way to a gold.
Soon after the game, angry callers lit up the switchboard at the offices of the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers, who expect to sign Sabonis and whose team physician, Dr. Robert Cook, helped him rehabilitate his foot during the months before the Olympics. Thompson had been critical of the Blazers. "NBA help prepare my players, thank you very much," said Gomelsky, whose team has played exhibitions against both the Atlanta Hawks, who own the rights to Marchulenis and Volkov, and the Milwaukee Bucks in the past year. But even Thompson acknowledged, "We lost the ball game. The NBA didn't."
For all the stateside talk about how the Americans would be anxious to atone for Munich and last summer's Pan Am Games loss to Brazil, no one thought to consider what the Soviets were playing for. The U.S. had won two Olympic golds since '72, but the U.S.S.R. hadn't won any. In their last major competition, the current crop of Soviet players had, with Sabonis, lost bitterly to a Robinson-led American team at the 1986 world championships in Spain.
This time it was much different, though Robinson played well with 19 points and 12 rebounds, and the Soviets moved on to play Yugoslavia in the title game, which they won 76-63. The U.S., left to play for the bronze, kookaburied Australia 78-49. "I hope the American public is sophisticated enough to credit these kids with the effort they gave," Thompson said. "I don't want anyone acting ashamed unless he didn't do all he could do."
So go ahead, America—hail your bronze medal Olympians. They did all they were told to do, and that wasn't enough. But be sure to welcome the Soviets into the NBA. There's a lot to be learned from them.