After the Soviet Union had withdrawn from the Olympic Games in the spring of 1984, its Olympic basketball coach, Alexander Gomelsky, said what the rest of the sports world probably already knew: "Bobby Knight, no problem now. Russians not come. He win."
Long before the Games began, in fact, all the foreign coaches whose basketball teams would have to play Knight's U.S. team had little expectation of winning a gold medal. Second place was the only realistic goal.
Jack Donohue of Canada came to town and assessed the rest of the planet's chances. "I think the United States is head and shoulders over everyone," he said. Later, after the United States had defeated his Canadian team in the semifinals, 78-59, Donohue was asked how the U.S. could lose to Spain in the final.
"Terrorist attack," Donohue replied.
Uruguay was overwhelmed by Knight's team, 104-68, and its coach, Ramon Etchamendi, admitted with unblushing candor, "The only way my team could have won was if we played seven and they five."
Maybe, to put some excitement back into the sport and keep up interest, that's the way basketball should be played in the Olympic Games. Certainly it would have helped at the Forum last summer, when the sport was overshadowed by other Olympic events because of the lack of competition. The U.S. men's and women's teams won gold medals with performances so one-sided they were boring. In some games, in fact, their opponents probably could have used two extra players and still lost.
The truth is, the men's and women's Olympic basketball tournaments had little appeal without the Soviets and attracted about as much interest as kayak racing and field hockey. No session, not even the men's championship game, was sold out. The biggest crowd, 15,067, saw the U.S. men beat Spain, 96-65, for the gold medal in a game that had all the suspense of a Soviet election. Many of those spectators probably had bought tickets thinking the United States would be playing the USSR.
The U.S. women attracted only 11,280 for their final with South Korea.
The strong men's team put together by Indiana's Knight pulled in an average of only 13,300 for its seven games. That is 2,000 fewer than the Lakers averaged for 41 games. The women's team, featuring a Southern California star, Cheryl Miller of Riverside and USC, drew far fewer than the men's.
Once the Games began, the U.S. men made Page 1 of The Times' Olympic section only three times, starting with their fifth game. The women made it only once--when they won the gold medal. The women did get top billing that morning, but the men were not as fortunate. They won their gold medal on the same day of the Mary Decker-Zola Budd incident at the Coliseum. The basketball story was squeezed in at the bottom of a page devoted almost exclusively to the women runners.
Further proof of how basketball got lost in the shuffle--it attracted even less attention than swimming--was the way ABC television treated it. The network showed the first U.S. men's game against China virtually in its entirety, then kept cutting away from the games if, in fact, it ever put them on the air.
"It was a strange situation," an ABC spokesman in New York said. "The U.S. teams were so damn good. With the Russians out, the games all became blowouts, and ABC could not devote too much time to blowouts."
Besides, the spokesman said, the gymnastics competition, often going on live at the same time, was more interesting.
The network gave volleyball equal time with basketball, the spokesman said, because it was played later than basketball, which was mostly scheduled for prime time.
While the spokesman said it wasn't true that basketball got lost in the shuffle on television, Keith Jackson, the ABC announcer for the sport, disagreed.
"Yes, it did get lost in the shuffle," he said. "We talked a great deal about it during the Games. When it appeared that both the men's and women's teams would run away from everybody, we said the coverage should come early in each game. The first 15 minutes were normally competitive, the last 25 minutes were not. They were supposed to go to it when it became competitive."
The usual procedure, Jackson said, "is to watch a contest as it develops to see if it is, in fact, a contest, then go to it." Apparently, ABC waited too long most of the time, and then it was too late.
ABC was right about the blowouts. The U.S. men scored 643 points to the opposition's 376 in seven games. Their average winning margin: 38 points. Their average score: 92-54. The women were almost as dominating. They scored 431 points in five games while holding their opponents to 265. Their average score: 86-53, their average winning margin: 33.
There is little doubt that it was the absence of the Soviets that depleted the spectator and media interest as much as the American domination.
Maybe, as Bobby Knight said , "The Russians wouldn't have won here."
We have to take his word for it, just as we have to take former Olympian Ann Meyers' when she said as an ABC analyst that the U.S. women would have won, anyway. Canadian Coach Don McCrae, who had seen both women's teams play, said, "It would have been a classic confrontation between the U.S. and Soviet Union."
There never was much interest in Olympic basketball until the Soviet Union came onto the scene in 1952. The game was an American sport and nobody else in the world played it with much skill. The U.S. has won 8 gold medals in 10 Olympics, often winning without its best players. UCLA's Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton, Houston's Elvin Hayes and North Carolina State's David Thompson were notable absentees.
The Soviets made it more interesting, of course, but it was almost as much the confrontation between the Communists and capitalists as the basketball that made it exciting. To the Soviets' credit, they learned the game well after losing twice to the United States in 1952 at Helsinki, 86-58 and 36-25, and by 1972 they were good enough to beat the Americans at their own game at Munich. That '72 final, however, ended with a suspect officials' call that allowed the final three seconds to be replayed and gave the Soviets one more shot.
The two nations have not played in the Olympics since that memorable upset. The United States beat Yugoslavia in the final at Montreal in 1976, after the Yugoslavs had upset the USSR in the semifinals. The boycott eliminated the Americans at Moscow in 1980.
Even though L.A. fans get to see better players all winter in NBA games at the Forum and knew Larry Bird and Magic Johnson better than U.S. Olympic stars Waymon Tisdale, Charles Barkley and even Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan, another confrontation between the U.S. and USSR would have stirred much interest.
The Soviets had gone 9-0 in the European Olympic qualifying tournament and had a front line of players who were 7-foot-4, 7-1 and 6-11. They made 82% of their free throws in the nine games. They certainly would have been a better match for the Americans than China, Spain, Canada, West Germany and Uruguay.
The Soviets, who had won the only two gold medals since women were first allowed to play basketball in the Olympics at Montreal, also would have made it more interesting for the United States, although, by all accounts, the Americans had improved noticeably since 1976. But in the Los Angeles Olympics, at least, women's basketball showed it was no competition for gymnastics and volleyball. Somebody besides the Soviets are good at those sports.
Maybe Keith Jackson was right when he said, "The best game we could have had was to let the U.S. men spot the U.S. women 12 points and let them play."