You could call it Shuttle diplomacy, even if it was a lot heavier on the former than on the latter. While the U.S. men's basketball team was positioning itself to take the gold at the Pan American Games in Havana, it created a contretemps that probably will tarnish whatever alloy of medal it wins when the competition ends this weekend.
After their 87-81 defeat of Argentina on Aug. 6, James Jackson of Ohio State, Christian Laettner of Duke, Clarence Weatherspoon of Southern Mississippi and the rest of the U.S. team fled the Pan Am athletes' village in Havana for practice in Miami. They quartered themselves for three nights at the Mayfair House in Coconut Grove in $175 rooms equipped with hot tubs. "Every one of these kids is going to be a multimillionaire in two years," said Bill Wall, executive director of USA Basketball. "That's why you can't equate this with team handball. If we're spoiled and arrogant, so be it. The days of being Boy Scouts in the village are over."
Trouble was, only a few days earlier Dr. Evie Dennis, the Colorado public school administrator who headed the American delegation at the games, had publicly assured the Cubans that all U.S. athletes, once in Cuba, would stay there until the conclusion of their competition. (With a week between events, some cyclists also left Havana for a training facility in Florida City, Fla., where their hotel rooms cost $35 a night.)
"We planned to do this a year ago," said Wall of USA Basketball's decision. "We told the USOC every step of the way. The only person who didn't know was Dr. Dennis. Maybe she should be back in Denver. The kids are getting ready to go back to school."
August 18, 1991
The basketball team's decision to shuttle between Havana and Miami for practice and R&R was made for the same reason that a harried executive flies first class. Thus, to players like Terry Dehere, a guard from Seton Hall, the Pan Am Games might as well have been another Big East business trip. "I didn't look at this as a vacation," said Dehere. "We're here to play basketball. That's all we're here to do."
Added U.S. coach Gene Keady of Purdue, "I don't understand why it's an issue. Drop it, please."
In a sense, the U.S. can't win for losing. After an astonishing loss to Brazil in the finals of the 1987 Pan Am Games in Indianapolis, coach Denny Crum was criticized for the defeat. The travails of the U.S. men since then—second at the '90 Goodwill Games, third at the '88 Olympics and '90 world championships—have given the American public reason to welcome NBA players for the '92 Olympics. Yet no matter how comfortable the Olympic Village in Barcelona is, if the rooms don't have room service and Spectravision, superstars aren't likely to want to live there. Wall says he will choose among three hotels in Barcelona, all of which are asking between $700 and $1,000 a night.
Even as the USA Basketball officials insisted that the Cuban facilities were largely adequate and the food edible, they insulted their hosts, flouted the spirit of the games, deprived their team of a chance to cohere under at least a modicum of adversity and redoubled the pressure to win. As John Thompson, the coach of the 1988 Olympic team, Mike Krzyzewski, the '90 world championships and Goodwill Games coach, and Crum can attest, the last thing that a U.S. team competing internationally needs these days is more pressure to win.
Send in the pros, the cry now goes, with regard to the U.S. men. The women already do that, and they still lost 86-81 to Cuba in the semifinals. Of the dozen members of the American team, 10 played for pay in Italy or Japan last season. Yet against Cuba's long-stemmed post-up players, the U.S. women went cold in the wrong arena at the wrong time. After having beaten Cuba 91-71 in a meaningless preliminary-round game two nights earlier, the American women didn't seem to notice that both the home crowd and the home team had adjusted to the raised stakes. "Every time they scored two points," said coach Vivian Stringer, "it seemed like six."
Hence, the Americans had to watch as Brazil thumped Cuba 97-76 for the gold, the country's first Pan Am title in women's basketball since 1971, when Brazilian coach Maria Cardoso was a player. Cardoso has paid her way to the last three NCAA Women's Final Fours to study up, and it shows.
The Americans' 92-61 defeat of Canada in Sunday's bronze medal game was scant consolation for their loss the previous day. Nevertheless, by having stuck it out in the village, the women will take home with them experiences that their male counterparts can only imagine.
Around midnight last Thursday, forward Bridgette Gordon realized she had left two diamond earrings, wrapped in trainers' tape, in the locker room at Havana's Sports City Coliseum. In a panic, Gordon and Susan Blackwood, a team official, flagged a cab outside the athletes' village and raced the 15 minutes back to the arena. Finding the locker room spotless, they persuaded maintenance workers to empty the contents of two dumpsters out back. There, a crowd of Cubans helped them pick through the garbage. Remarkably, after about an hour of looking with a broom and a flashlight, they found the wad of tape with the diamonds safe inside. Gordon and Blackwood thanked the cluster of workers, who refused to accept so much as a U.S. team pin for their help.
The women brought other memories home. Center Venus Lacy met a shy hurdler named Elbert Ellis from North Carolina in the village and took a liking to him. Forward Andrea Lloyd won't forget how she sweet-talked a factotum into giving her not merely one of the village's scarce toilet seats but a padded one at that. And the entire team will remember the sight of the Cuban in the crowd the afternoon they lost, the guy who participated in the Wave whenever it made its way through his section of the arena. You might recognize him. Bearded guy. Wears fatigues.
"You have to keep things in perspective," said Lloyd, who recalled losing a game during a tour of China in 1985. "I look back fondly on that trip. Although basketball is the thing we focused on here, we took advantage of the chance to learn about another culture. Besides, during training we're only around each other, and after a while you look forward to meeting other people."
As for our men in Havana, they defeated Uruguay 114-68 on Monday, and then decamped again, Boy Scouts no more, for Coconut Grove. For two nights before the semifinals, they could contemplate in airconditioned comfort this cold truth: For multimillionaires-in-waiting, it's not a matter of hoping to win the gold medal. It's a matter of having to.