DAY 11 : THE SEOUL GAMES : 16 YEARS LATER, THE REMATCH : U.S. Can't Reset Clock, but Can Even the Score for a Soviet Stunner

Times Staff Writer

Sixteen years in the re-making, the U.S.-Soviet basketball game you'd like to have seen in 1973 . . . or '74 . . . or '75 . . . or any time since is finally on.

Remember Munich in the summer of '72?

Alexander Gomelsky does, and his memories are a lot happier than those of most people you know.

"My boys come back after Olympic Games, 1972, this is big story," said the Soviet men's coach Monday night after his team sneaked past Brazil to set up Wednesday's game with the United States.

"All people give them heroes. This is 15 years ago but every day, Russian people and Russian newspapers, journalists on TV, talk of 3 seconds in Munich. And every basketball person knows, Alexander Belov is great player."

He smiles his best I-love-the-Western-press smile.

"This is great story. I like it same."

And the U.S. officials' insistence that they were cheated?

"Who is officials?" asks Gomelsky. "What is opinion of U.S. people?"

They think the United States was cheated, too.

"Maybe," says Gomelsky, smiling modestly.

There are lots of other memories, but before we get into all that, another question occurs: Can this game possibly live up to the hype?

Or, are the Soviets good enough to give the United States a game?

Is there anyone here who is?

The Soviets lost to the Yugoslavs, should have lost to Puerto Rico, a 47-point loser to the Americans, and were fighting for their lives Monday against the Brazilians, 15-point losers to the United States. Not until Oscar Schmidt missed a 17-footer with 30 seconds left, and Rimas Kurtinaitis nailed a 3-pointer at :03 did they escape with a 110-105 win.

In general, the European teams have all looked shaky here, reducing European observers to sad shakes of their heads.

Spain, silver medalist at Los Angeles, was knocked out of the tournament by Australia Monday.

Yugoslavia, consensus pick as the No. 2 team here, lost to Puerto Rico in round-robin play and beat South Korea by only 12 points.

"The Rotterdam pre-Olympic tournament just killed the European teams," says Dan Peterson, an American who coached in Italy and now does Italian TV commentary.

"They've been going 12 months without a break. John Thompson should just go to sleep. His assistants can take it from here."

There's another possibility, too. Maybe European teams just aren't as good as the feverish European press thinks. Even before everyone got tuckered out at Rotterdam, none of these teams were looking much better than they have here.

Do you remember Munich in '72?

Ed Steitz does.

He's a former president of the council of the U.S. basketball federation, and he was there.

He remembers it all: the United States trailing by a point . . . Doug Collins stealing the ball and going in for a layup . . . Collins getting knocked cold . . . Collins getting up and making the 2 free throws . . . the Soviets in-bounding the ball wildly . . . the Soviets claiming they'd called time out . . . William Jones, head of the world basketball federation, coming out of the stands to give the Soviets another chance . . . the Soviets in-bounding a second time, with the buzzer sounding after 1 second . . . Jones giving them one more chance . . . and finally, Ivan Yedeshko throwing a length-of-the-court pass to Alexander Belov, who splits Jim Forbes and Kevin Joyce to score the winning layup.

There was more, including Coach Hank Iba getting his pocket picked in the ensuing melee, and the United States protesting, and the protest being denied, and the Americans refusing to accept their silver medals.

And who was this William Jones, anyway?

He was born in England and educated in the United States. For better or worse, he was international basketball.

"He was a graduate of Springfield (Mass.) College, just as I am," Steitz says.

"I'm basically responsible for his being awarded an honorary doctorate, which he deserved. He basically took basketball all around the world, out of his own pocket.

"He was in my home on several occasions. Once I said, 'Dr. Jones, if you had it to do over again, would you make the same decision?'

"He said, 'Well, if I had had a second chance, I might have changed my mind.' But he went to his deathbed without saying what he'd have done if he'd had a second opportunity.

"But he never thought the United States would allow a 90-foot pass down to their end. He indicated to me, 'I was shocked that they didn't defend the in-bounds pass by getting close, and allow the man to throw a strike to Belov.' The guy (Belov) fouled, he traveled, but you knew they weren't going to call it.

"The one thing I regretted--that's what the team voted--was not going out and accepting the silver medal. I don't think it's right for the United States to say, 'Take your medals and shove 'em.'

"Those medals are still in a vault, in Munich."

Wait just a second.

What was a U.S. team even doing in that position in the first place?

"Everybody talks about we were robbed," NBC's Al McGuire says. "What the hell! How about the other 39 minutes?"

Conveniently forgotten in the chorus of anguish is the fact that the Soviets fought the Americans on even terms through the first 39.

How come?

A U.S. Olympic team in those days was a far cry from what it is now. The best players didn't automatically come out, and the National Basketball Assn. didn't automatically refrain from signing them.

Thus in '72, there was no Bill Walton, Jamaal Wilkes or David Thompson. UCLA players had a historic disinclination. Thompson had only played freshman ball to that point, and the selection process didn't go beyond varsity players, much less to high schoolers, as it does now.

The venerable Iba coached the 1964 and '68 teams and by 1972, with his old-fashioned slow-down style and stern-Mr.-Iba bearing, he hardly represented the state of the art in American coaching.

Look at his team: a front line of Mike Bantom, Jim Brewer, Dwight Jones, Tom Burleson, Tom McMillen, Jim Forbes. . . That was the best the United States had to offer?

With its casual selection process, its traditionalists aging at the wheel, its star players staying home and the unspoken assumption on which it was all based--We're the United States, whatever we do in this game is good enough--this team was an accident waiting to happen.

It took several tries, but it happened, all right.

It's a different day in the United States, where the program has been improved to something sleek and businesslike.

And the successors to the Soviets?

They're a lot better than they used to be, too, so much so that NBA teams have already drafted, or tried to sign, four Soviets.

But who are they really?

Gomelsky--The "silver fox." He is, as they say in the West, a hotdog, with his ready smile and his willingness to talk at length. He's especially fond of U.S. reporters, whom he'll take on team buses, and allow at team meals, giving them access to the Soviet program they could never dream of getting while covering their own country's team.

Gomelsky is short, gray-haired and he used to be dapper, wearing sharply cut suits. Now, however, he wears the same blue-striped sport shirt every game. He's a fascinating character, widely liked and much gossiped about.

He's a colonel in the Red Army, and, according to gossip among his European peers, was once on the nomenklatura, the list of the Soviet elite, before Mikhail Gorbachev abolished it. Gomelsky is variously and constantly rumored to have connections that go up to the Politburo itself, or to be in trouble if he loses again.

Peterson says Gomelsky's great virtue is that his players--prima donnas who have eaten up other would-be national coaches--fear him. However, there is also widespread skepticism whether Gomelsky can coach at all. By American terms, he looks a little short, and we aren't talking about his height.

Arvydas Sabonis--The Soviet prodigy, 23 years old, 7-3 and 270 pounds, the first man who hadn't played in the United States to be an NBA first-round pick. He's struggling after 18 months off with two Achilles' tendon injuries. Healthy, he can really play, handle, pass, shoot it from outside, you name it.

Lute Olson, the Arizona coach who coached against him in the '86 World Championships, rates him at only 50-60% of his usual self.

"I saw him against Yugoslavia the first night here," Olson said. "It was obvious his timing was way off. He wasn't getting good lift when he jumped. Then he went against Australia and went for 17 points and 20 rebounds. He looked like the old Sabonis. The next game, he didn't play, so you don't know."

Monday night, Sabonis moved around a little better than he had been, but his timing was still way off. He missed his first 6 shots and wound up 4 for 14. Color him not quite ready.

Vladimir Tkachenko--A 7-2, 290-pound hulk and normally the starting center, he's out with back trouble. The Europeans call him Cha Cha because he's so ponderous, but he was effective in a Frankenstein-chased-by-villagers way. When he and Sabonis played twin towers, the Soviets ruled Europe. The story is, when Tkachenko hurt his back in a tournament and had to remain in a prone position, the Soviets had to fly him home in the baggage compartment of their plane.

Sharunas Marchulenis--Nicknamed the human Sputnik for his jumping ability, this muscular 6-4 guard is their best player. The Golden State Warriors tried to draft him, but the pick was ruled invalid and the Atlanta Hawks are now trying to sign him. He's only a fair shooter, but he's a good playmaker and much more fiery than the average Soviet. He looks as if he could play in the NBA.

Alexander Volkov--A No. 2 pick of the Hawks, he's a 6-9 forward who likes to drive and can shoot a little. He's been only so-so here.

Said Olson: "He's a specialist-type player. He's not going to hit a lot from the outside. He's a banger who takes the ball hard to the hole. Beyond that, he can't do all the things the good U.S. power forwards can do. But what he does, he does well."

Valery Tikhoneko--Another 6-9 forward drafted by the Hawks and born-again internationalist Ted Turner--they've also drafted 6-9 Song Tao of China. "Tikky" looked dead in the water at Rotterdam but has been better here. A better outside shooter than Volkov, but still not the type to take a game over.

Titt Sokk--The point guard, a pretty good player and shooter, but he's not up to U.S. standards for quickness. Nor are any of his teammates, except Sabonis.

Rimas Kurtinaitis--Comrade Jump Shooter, he's a swing guard, a Western-looking blond with a long rat's tail down the back of his neck. He comes off the bench firing, and blows hot and cold, but he isn't bashful.

Valdemaras Khomichus--Plays a little backup point guard. Otherwise, see Rimas Kurtinaitis, but without the rat's tail.

Add them up and they spell S-O-V-I-E-T-S.

Four years ago, Gomelsky actually thought he could beat the United States, which was fielding one of the great amateur teams in history and was going to be playing at home.

"Bobby Knight, no problem now," Gomelsky said, ruefully, when the Soviet boycott was announced. "Russians no come, he win."

Bobby Knight, probably no problem in either case.

Does Gomelsky remember thinking he had a chance?

"I have chance now," he said Monday night, smiling.

What kind of chance?

"Not bad."

We'll see. We've waited 16 years, but Wednesday we'll see.

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