Moments after the Soviet Union had defeated the United States in one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Summer Olympics, that noted basketball ambassador, Oscar Schmidt of Brazil, was asked if he was shocked.
Schmidt made a shrugging motion and said, “Everybody in the world plays basketball.” And if the recently concluded Olympic basketball competition proved anything, it was that everybody in the world is playing it better and better.
Scouts interviewed this week believe that about a dozen players who performed for international teams at these Summer Games could be on National Basketball Assn. preseason rosters by the time camp opens for the 1989-1990 season. And four of those players are on the Soviet team that won the gold medal Friday and braced for the possibility of the first Soviet player heading to the United States for professional basketball.
From all indications, that Soviet player will not be Arvydas Sabonis, the 7-foot-3 center who rehabilitated an injury last summer with the Portland Trailblazers, the team that drafted him in the first round in 1987.
The Atlanta Hawks are hoping to sign guard Sharunas Martchioulenis, a 24-year-old left-handed guard who reminds many people of Gail Goodrich. Stan Kasten, the Hawks’ president and general manager, worked into the wee hours Friday to reach a deal, which probably would not be worked out just yet.
Kasten had to get approval not only from government and sports officials in the Soviet Union (at the national and local levels) but also from government, sports and club officials in Martchioulenis’ native Lithuania.
Whether Kasten can work through the situation immediately is not the primary issue. If the Soviet Union wants its players to compete in the NBA it will happen, either this season or next.
If the Soviets want to wait until April 7, when the International Basketball Federation is expected to open international competition like the Olympics and World Championships to professionals--meaning NBA players can still represent their home countries--it almost surely will happen next year.
And once the Soviets do it, the Yugoslavs will, too, if they don’t send someone first. “The first player,” Kasten said, “is very, very important.”
That first player apparently will not be Sabonis, without whom the Soviets could not have won the gold medal. “I can’t see Sabonis playing this year at all,” Kasten said. “I don’t think he should be playing anyway (because of a recuperating Achilles’ tendon injury that kept him out of action for 18 months). Even his doctors in Lithuania told him that. And he’s not there yet.
“But he’s such a big deal over there. If they conduct this as an experiment, he’s not going to be the guy they experiment with.”
Martchioulenis would be the one, and he wants to be. “I want to play,” he told U.S. reporters.
Martchioulenis’ contract with his club team Statiba runs out Friday, and he said he simply would not play if he isn’t allowed to go to the NBA.
Already, the Soviet Union is experiencing free agency.
Sabonis plays for the Zalgiris team in Kaunas. If he leaves right now, the team would fall flat. So, if Martchioulenis goes to the States first and likes it, look for Sabonis, Valeri Tikhonenko and Aleksandr Vokov--the last two have already been drafted by the Hawks--to soon follow across the seas.
“It would be an historic step for them,” Kasten said. “You can understand them wanting to be cautious. They want to make sure of so many things. But there is no question there’s not a Soviet player alive who doesn’t want to play in the NBA. They aren’t even coy about it.”
The Soviets are a big part of the new international basketball picture, but not all of it. Kasten said he sees at least three Yugoslavs headed to the NBA next year: Drazen Petrovic, a 6-foot-4 guard who nearly left home for Notre Dame a few years ago; Stojan Vrankovic, a 7-foot-1 center the Boston Celtics have courted; Zarko Paspalj, a 6-foot-10 forward.
And in two years look out for Vlade Divac, a 20-year-old 6-foot-11 forward who has the same skills Sabonis first exhibited five years ago.
The scouts also say Angel Jimnez, a guard from Spain, could play, as well as Australian guard Andrew Gaze, who is headed for Seton Hall this week.
“I expect more of an exchange of competition,” U.S. Coach John Thompson said. “Perhaps an international professional league or more amateur leagues on the international level. I think it will be helpful for everybody involved.” Thompson added he wishes the U.S. team could have played in tact in the European Championship.”
Soviet Coach Aleksandr Gomelsky has been the biggest advocate of his players leaving the Soviet Union to play in the NBA. Gomelsky says the only way for his players to catch up with the United States is for them to play NBA players, even in the Olympics.
What all this exchange of ideas, exchange of philosophies, exchange of Xs and Os, do to the game? Will the U.S. teams find jump shooting and passing again? Will the Europeans begin to incorporate more transition into their approach? Can somebody teach the Brazilians how to play defense? Perhaps continental styles will begin to disappear altogether.
“This is how you get basketball progress,” Gomelsky said. “I am a basketball man, I want to see basketball No. 1 in the world.