In a scene that has become all too familiar to U.S. basketball fans, strong, experienced foreign teams beat a young American squad inexperienced in international competition. It happened at the '88 Olympics in Seoul, where the U.S. lost to the U.S.S.R. It happened at the '87 Pan Am Games in Indianapolis, where the Americans fell to Brazil. And it happened again last week at the Goodwill Games in Seattle, where the Americans got the silver medal but lost 92-85 to the Soviet Union in a preliminary-round game and 85-79 to Yugoslavia in the final.
"It's not that we didn't play hard," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, skipper of the current American team. "But we are 19-and 20-year-olds going against men."
So they were, as were the last two U.S. teams. That will change at the '92 Olympics in Barcelona, where NBA players will be allowed on the American squad. Until then, the U.S. is stuck with whoever isn't in summer school or on the verge of signing an NBA contract. "It's the way it is," said Krzyzewski. "You just have to make the most of it."
Ignore the professional issue for a moment. The heart of international basketball is the three-point shot. Conspicuously absent from the U.S. squad was a player who could consistently make three-pointers, though the Americans thought they had one in Arkansas guard Lee Mayberry, the NCAA's fourth-most-accurate three-point shooter (50.4%) last season.
In Seattle, the U.S. converted only 22 of 71 shots from beyond the three-point stripe (which at 20'6" from the hoop is nine inches farther back than the collegiate line and 3'3" closer than the NBA line). This included horrific performances of 0 for 10 against Puerto Rico, 3 for 13 against the Soviet Union and 1 for 11 against Yugoslavia.
Also absent from this year's U.S. squad were several of the country's better eligible players, among them Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon, who together led UNLV to the national championship, and LSU's Shaquille O'Neal. Moreover, those about to join the NBA chose not to try out for the team for fear that, without a signed contract, an injury could decrease their market value. So no Derrick Coleman. No Bo Kimble. No Chris Jackson.
Krzyzewski just had to make do. Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning, Syracuse's Billy Owens and Georgia Tech's Kenny Anderson are a formidable threesome, but in the end they weren't enough. "It's disappointing," said Owens, who finished with a team-high 21.4 scoring average. "We set a goal to win the gold, and really thought we could do it."
The Americans had no reason to think otherwise after their 100-94 win over Puerto Rico. Both teams played most of the game without their key big men. Mourning, who's 6'10", 230 pounds, and the 6'10", 265-pound Josè Ortiz (formerly of Oregon State and the Utah Jazz) were ejected midway through the first half for trading punches in what had already become an ugly game. Luckily for the U.S., Owens made 13 of 20 shots from the floor to finish with a game-high 30 points.
The Soviets were up next, and though only Valeri Tikhonenko remained from the '88 Olympic gold medal squad, they outplayed the U.S., especially from the three-point line. While Tikhonenko was converting 5 of 9 trey attempts, the Americans struggled. The Soviets trailed by three points at intermission but outscored the U.S. 30-11 in the opening minutes of the second half. Then the game got out of hand. So did Krzyzewski, who blasted the media for unfairly "putting the weight of the country on these 20-year-old backs."
Krzyzewski was outraged when Mark Zeigler of The San Diego Union asked Mayberry and forward Mark Randall if they were embarrassed to have lost to the Soviets. "That's a horse-crap question," replied Krzyzewski. "Are you embarrassed to ask it?"
Later, Krzyzewski said, "You don't play basketball well with the burden of national pride on you."
Yet after his squad hammered Italy 113-76 and upset Brazil 112-95 in the semifinals, he was quick to ask for the American public's support. "We'd like the whole U.S. to get together to help this team win," he said at a crammed press conference.
The U.S. made its most impressive showing of the tournament against the Brazilians. Pan Am Games fans will remember Oscar Schmidt, who almost single-handedly beat the U.S. in 1987. It was an older Schmidt—he's 32 now—who faced the Americans last week, but it was clear from his performances that time has been on his side. He scored 33 points against Spain, 26 against Yugoslavia and 42 against Australia. When asked whom he would detail to guard Schmidt, Krzyzewski said, "A lot of people."
Actually, the burden fell to Todd Day, a trash-talking guard from the University of Arkansas. Schmidt scored 38 points, but Day limited him to 45% shooting from the field. What's more, most of those points came late in the game, after a U.S. win was assured. For his part, Day had eight rebounds, five assists, two steals and 16 points. "I was leaving the gym and people were saying, 'Good defense, good defense,' " Day said. "But I looked at the stat sheet, and it said 38 points. That's not what I call good defense."
"Day did a great job on me," Schmidt said. "Maybe the best of anyone."
Anderson had 25 points and seven assists, and Owens, who had a team-high 10 rebounds, added 22 points and inside muscle. But the real key was the U.S.'s three-point shooting. The Americans made 10 of 16 treys, their best performance of the tournament.
For the first time, the U.S. played more like a team than a group of egos. Throughout the week, Krzyzewski had told his players not to expect too much. They were like a college team in the first week of the season. Don't panic, he said. Against Brazil, his reassurances seemed to sink in. "It felt really good out there," said Anderson. "I could see people better, knew better where they were going, what was going on."
Whatever familiarity the Americans gained that night was all but gone against tournament favorite Yugoslavia on Sunday night. The Yugoslavs boasted three NBA-caliber players: Forward Zarko Paspalj spent last season with the San Antonio Spurs; forward Toni Kukoc was drafted this spring by the Chicago Bulls; and forward Dino Radja is being pursued by the Boston Celtics and hopes to be in uniform this fall. From the outset, the Americans seemed rattled. Their shots wouldn't fall and their passes were soft. Then everything became forced.
"I can't say why we were missing," said Owens, who led the U.S. team with 23 points. The shots just wouldn't fall."
That was especially true for Day, who could not duplicate his brilliance in the Brazil game. He made only 1 of 12 baskets, none of his four three-point shots. Anderson was almost as bad, shooting 3 of 15 from the field, and Mayberry was 1 for 5. As a team, the U.S. shot a dismal 38% from the field and 69% (24 of 35) from the line.
The Americans were lucky to have kept the score as close as they did. Radja, Kukoc and another of the Yugoslavs' three-point sharpshooters, Jurij Zdovc, got in foul trouble early and spent most of the second half on the bench with Paspalj, who had sprained his ankle in the first half. After trailing most of the night, the U.S. closed to within three points when Mourning converted both ends of a one-and-one with 1:48 seconds remaining. Owens grabbed a rebound and passed to Day, and the Americans looked as if they would trail by one with 42 seconds to go. Then Day dished a beautiful pass inside to Smith, whose hands seemed to turn to stone. The ball sailed out of bounds and so did the U.S. hopes of winning the gold.
What makes the Yugoslavs' victory especially impressive is that they achieved it without their two best players—center Vlade Divac and guard Drazen Petrovic. But both are expected to play at the world championships later this month in Buenos Aires, where the U.S. team will be the same as the one that played in Seattle.
Every player in the world knows that when the U.S. sics the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Patrick Ewing on its opponents in the '92 Olympics, the competition will be over before it has begun. "The beauty of the system now is that you don't know what's going to happen, whether our kids can rise to the big challenge," said Krzyzewski. "It's like knowing the ending of a book. You may not want to read the book if you do."