From 1975 to 2002 the southwest African country of Angola endured
a civil war that killed as many as one million people and forced
nearly a third of the population of 13 million to flee their
homes. Today a truce is in place, but life is still hard.
That the former Portuguese colony maintained a national
basketball team through the decades of war is remarkable. That
the team has won seven African championships since 1989 and will
be--for the fourth straight time--the continent's only
representative in the Olympic basketball tournament is, in the
words of its coach, Mario Palma, "an absolute miracle."
Fans in the U.S. may remember Angola as the squad crushed by the
Dream Team 116-48 in Barcelona in 1992 and 87-54 in Atlanta four
years later. In the '92 blowout Charles Barkley played the ugly
American by elbowing lanky forward Herlander Coimbra to the floor
after incidental contact between the two. "You hit me, I'll hit
you," Barkley said afterward. "Even if it does look like he
hasn't eaten in a while."
The Angolan team is no joke in Luanda, the capital city of 4.5
million, where basketball rims hang from bullet-scarred apartment
buildings. When the Angolans' undersized lineup (no player taller
than 6'9") takes the court for the team's Olympic opener on Aug.
15 against European champion Lithuania, "there won't be a person
on the streets," says Luanda resident Manuel Cudivila, an avid
fan. "Everyone will be watching the games on TV."
The team is a symbol of hope and pride in a country that over the
years has had little of either. A source of slaves for centuries,
Angola spent most of the 20th century under Fascist or Communist
rule. Shortly after Portugal granted the country its independence
in 1975, the civil war broke out, leading most of the national
basketball team members to move away.
An Angolan coach named Victorino Cunha took it upon himself to
rebuild the team, and with support from the beleaguered
government, he succeeded. Cunha developed his players with
arduous practice, smart coaching, weight training and improved
For the past five years the national squad has been overseen by
Palma, who is Portuguese and coached in the European pro leagues
before taking the Angolan job. Despite a lineup that includes
African tournament MVP Miguel Lutonda at guard and former
Valparaiso standout Joaquim Gomez at forward, Palma knows that
his team (2-15 in Olympic play) will be an underdog in every game
"We'll try to lose by fewer than 30 points," he says of Angola's
Aug. 23 matchup with the U.S. Seeing their squad give the Dream
Team a good game would be reason for Angolans to reprise their
2003 African championship celebration in Luanda. "People ran into
the streets," Palma says. "That day they partied, they enjoyed
themselves, they cried, they danced. They completely forgot their