The United States defeated Cuba, 93-74, Saturday in the bronze-medal game, a warm-up to the main event at the Sports City Coliseum pitting Puerto Rico against Mexico for the men's basketball championship of the Pan American Games.
But if officials of the Confederation of Pan American Basketball Assns. (COPABA) get their wish, it is unlikely there will be another championship game within the foreseeable future that does not involve the United States.
Tuto Marchan, the Cuban president of COPABA, said Saturday that he will propose at the association's next meeting in December at Springfield, Mass., that the men's basketball tournament in future Pan American Games be confined to players 22 and under.
"We've just discussed it, but I've talked to everybody who votes," he said. "It's sure to pass."
He acknowledged that the change would virtually guarantee that every other country is playing for second place, but he said that it might be the only means of assuring the United States' continued presence in men's basketball at the games.
Even with no age limitations, the United States won the gold medal at eight of the first nine Pan American Games. But as the level of play in the sport has improved in other countries, U.S. collegians have been overmatched in some instances against teams with players who are older and more experienced internationally. In the last two Pan American Games, the United States has won silver and bronze medals.
Competing in this tournament with a team of 12 college undergraduates, whose average age was 20, the United States lost in the semifinals Thursday night to a Puerto Rican team that has five players who are professionals in Europe and an average age of 26. Mexico's team, which lost to Puerto Rico, 77-65, in Saturday's final, has an average age of 25. The only other team in the 10-team tournament with an average age under 24 was the Bahamas.
The U.S. coach here, Gene Keady of Purdue, said he would welcome the change.
"Because of the level of their players' experience, some of these countries, in some ways, have gone around our college players," he said. "If it becomes a 22-and-under tournament, I don't think they can stay with us. That would be more fair to our players."
But Bill Wall, executive director of USA Basketball, said he might favor the elimination of men's basketball from the Pan American Games and the formation of a separate tournament for COPABA teams.
NBA players are eligible for the Pan American Games, as they are for the World Championships and the Olympic Games, but USA Basketball used only collegians here because it recognized the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of persuading U.S. professionals to play in the Pan American Games.
"In four or five years, I'd put the players we have here against anybody because they're that talented," said Tom McGrath, USA Basketball's assistant executive director. "But right now, they're limited in experience."
They gained some Saturday when they played Cuba before its boisterous home fans for the second time in two weeks. The United States won the tournament opener by four points over the Cubans, and while this was a more convincing victory, it was no day at Varadero Beach.
Tempers flared early and often. In an attempt to keep the game under control, the referees sent the teams to the line for 71 free throws. Five players fouled out.
After being involved in confrontations under the basket a couple of times in the first 20 minutes, Stanford center Adam Keefe, who is from Irvine, and Cuba's appropriately named Noangel Luaces carried their differences into the tunnel leading to the locker rooms at halftime.
According to witnesses, Keefe said something to Luaces, who slapped him. Michigan State's Mike Peplowski shoved Luaces before security guards separated them.
"Adam and that guy were discussing cooking recipes, discussing the best way to make hamburgers," Peplowski joked. "One of them thought a charcoal fire would be best, and one thought a wood fire would be best.
"Nah, that guy got (angry) and pushed Adam. I had to push him back. That guy had it coming to him. You can't just stand there and become a human punching bag."
Keefe could not be reached for comment after being selected for random drug testing.
There were no more incidents until late in the game, when Cuba's Angel Caballero undercut Maryland's Walt Williams on a dunk. Williams fell hard, but was uninjured.
"I'm surprised there wasn't a fight," said UCLA's Tracy Murray, who matched Williams' 15 points to lead the United States before fouling out. "I was up and ready to go."
As for the game, Cuba, after trailing by 17 points late in the first half, rallied to within two points of the United States with 13:40 remaining but could never catch up. The end was ugly as Cuba didn't score in the final 6:35.
"Playing for third place was hard to swallow and hard to chew on," Peplowski said. "Any time you play for the United States in any sport, anything less than a gold medal is sub-par. No athlete wants to play for third place."
But given no other alternative, the U.S. team played hard for the bronze medal.
"We wanted to go home with something around our necks," Duke's Grant Hill said.