Three years ago, when Brazil stunned the U.S. basketball team in the Pan American Games, Coach Denny Crum took the rap. It was his fault, we said, for not adjusting to The Fabulous Oscar Schmidt. It must have been bad coaching. How could the U.S. team lose to a guy shooting 30-footers who couldn’t even make the New Jersey Nets?
Two summers ago, when the Soviet Union semi-stunned the United States in Seoul at the Olympic Games, John Thompson was vilified. The consensus was that he selected the wrong team. Too many defensive players, not enough offensive firepower.
This summer, here at the Goodwill Games, the U.S. team lost to the Soviets again and to Yugoslavia late Sunday night with the gold medal at stake. It wasn’t stunning, it wasn’t semi-stunning, it wasn’t even an upset. Mike Krzyzewski, proclaimed a genius four months ago when his Dukies again went to the Final Four, brought along an experienced and respected staff. Except for perhaps Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon, who opted to attend summer school, it would be silly to question the makeup of the team. The only four underclassmen you absolutely had to have--Billy Owens, Kenny Anderson, Alonzo Mourning and Todd Day -- were all present.
One of the best coaches in the country led a team of elite American players into an international competition on our own soil and lost twice in less than a week. How sobering. Is it too late to apologize to Crum and Thompson?
We’ve never seen U.S. basketball this vulnerable. For 30 years we’ve treated the winning of gold medals as an inalienable right. But the loss to Brazil ushered in a new age. One in which Brazilians, Russians and Yugoslavs are no longer plodders, but 6 foot 9 and agile, able to play four positions. Magic wanna-bes. America’s inner cities aren’t the only places kids play basketball eight hours a day; anybody who watched the wizardry of Yugoslavia’s 6-9 Toni Kukoc knows that.
The Soviets, when they take the court in Argentina in two weeks in the world championships, will have at least two NBA-caliber players on the roster. All five of Yugoslavia’s starters will be NBA players. And they will be men who play basketball for a living, not 19 year olds like Anderson and Mourning.
What the U.S. kids can’t get over is that foreign-born players can do the same things Americans can with a basketball, many they cannot. Day, perhaps the U.S. team’s best open-court defender, got suckered by Kukoc on a crossover dribble to the middle one time, then was left in the lurch when Kukoc faked to the middle and went right on another possession.
“I don’t know whether they’re amazed or not,” Krzyzewski said. “But they sometimes seem to be puzzled about some things that happen out there. You do get to appreciate what a Kukoc does, what an Oscar Schmidt does. They are different.”
One of the big differences between American and European ball is that U.S. players want to break you down one-on-one, while foreign players break you down as a team. Lately, though, players like Zarko Paspalj and Kukoc -- largely with the aid of VCRs and tapes of Magic and Michael -- have developed the skills to beat you one-on-one, or play the straight team concept.
Krzyzewski lamented too much one-on-one play by his team, and the fact that American kids learn to dunk before they learn to shoot. Dunking is fine in the NBA, but when Mourning dunks at one end and Kukoc hits a three at the other, dunking becomes a liability. Coach K thinks the adoption of the three-point shot by high schools everywhere will result in better shooters “in three or four years,” he said. “Right now, we don’t have shooters. Our kids don’t shoot.”
So, the U.S. basketball movement faces a major dilemma. Even though our own NBA players -- the best in the world -- have been cleared to play, nobody knows if they will. Karl Malone and Charles Barkley are about the only two big names who have said unconditionally they want to play. Others will tell you straight out they want to see what the accommodations are like.
Will our pros want to compete in events like the Sports Festival? Of course not. What about the world championships and Pan American Games? Doubtful. Do we build up the hopes of college kids by letting them play internationally for three years, then dump them the last week of June to bring in a bunch of millionaire all-stars for the Olympics? And if those NBA select all-star teams, without practice, can’t beat our collegians in those pre-Olympic exhibitions, what makes anyone think they can beat the Soviets, Brazilians and Yugoslavians who’ve been playing together for half a decade or more?
The best-case scenario is that the U.S. team would be selected the last week of June, roughly one week after the NBA Finals. How many NBA players? How many from college? Said Coach K, “I don’t know, in a short period of time, if we will ever be as cohesive as some of those foreign teams because they play year after year together.”
Coach K makes a convincing argument that college kids should still represent the United States. “It adds to the interest level of international competition,” he said, “that it’s not Michael Jordan and those guys kicking butt. You don’t know how it’s going to turn out; they’re kids. I don’t know if that’s all bad. It’s not all bad for me.
“One of the great joys we have is seeing kids go to the World University Games, to the Jones Cup, and represent the U.S. They come back much better players and it’s a great educational experience for them. If we lose, does that make it a bad experience? We have to look at the big picture. ... “
That said, Krzyzewski was asked if U.S. kids will ever be able to win another international tournament against grown men who are pros. “Well, they can,” he said, “but will they? Now isn’t that the exciting thing about this? No longer knowing the answer like we used to?”