They are tucked away in a corner of the Olympics, two groups of
sad-eyed men laboring in a tiny gymnasium on a steamy Southern
night. In another part of town the basketball celebrities from
the U.S. are preparing for their first performance in a huge
arena filled with adoring fans and television cameras, but there
is no such grandeur here for the teams from Lithuania and
Croatia, which is what they expect. They have come here with no
illusions. Even on this first night of competition, they know a
gold medal is not in their future, and they do not hesitate to
admit as much. They are not the wide-eyed dreamers who populate
other Olympic teams and believe anything is possible. In their
countries that kind of innocence dies young.
The game begins, and there is Toni Kukoc, Croatia's star
forward, playing despite a broken left thumb that was expected
to keep him on the sidelines. The lefthanded Kukoc shoots and
passes brilliantly, scoring 33 points while grimacing in pain so
often that it begins to seem like his natural expression. A few
nights later a U.S. gymnast will complete a vault with torn
ligaments in her ankle and become a national hero, but there
will be no odes to Kukoc's courage in the newspapers tomorrow.
For Lithuania, center Arvydas Sabonis thunders up and down the
court, not letting his surgically scarred knees slow him. The
teams play with pride and passion, neither squad able to break
away from the other, and the mostly American spectators begin to
put down their hot dogs and nachos and appreciate the small
jewel of a game taking shape.
The buzzer sounds with the score tied 66-66, and the game heads
into overtime, then into a second extra period. Lithuanian star
Sarunas Marciulionis fouled out near the end of regulation, and
when Sabonis follows him to the bench because of fouls in the
second overtime, all seems lost for Lithuania. Croatia leads by
three points in the waning moments, but Lithuanian guard Rimas
Kurtinaitis responds with a four-point play when he is fouled
while making a three-point shot, and Lithuania has a one-point
lead. By now the small crowd is on its feet as the exhausted
players try to summon the energy for one final push. Kukoc makes
three free throws to regain a two-point advantage for Croatia.
But it is Kurtinaitis again, drilling another three-pointer to
put the Lithuanians back on top by one. This time Croatia has no
answer, and Lithuania wins 83-81.
The Lithuanian players hug one another in wild celebration while
the Croatians linger on the court, seemingly in a daze. Kukoc
falls to his knees in disappointment and fatigue while the fans
applaud the magnificence of what they have just seen. There is
no NBC reporter to interview the victors, there will be no
banner headlines in American papers tomorrow. The game will
remain in the shadows, its story passing mostly by word of
mouth. "I hear that was a great game the other night," someone
says to Marciulionis a few days later. "You did not see it?"
Marciulionis replies. "Ah, my friend, if you had only seen it."