By Al Featherston
July 31, 2007
The 1968 U.S. Olympic basketball team didn't get much respect.
An American team almost devoid of stars and battered during a pre-Olympic tour of Europe arrived in Mexico City to find itself projected to finish third, behind the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
The NBA wasn't involved in the Olympic movement in those days. American kids college players mixed with a few slightly older veterans from the military and AAU ranks were asked to take on the world.
That wouldn't have been a problem if the top American college stars had played for the 1968 version of Team USA. But all the talk in Mexico City was about who was not there for the United States no Wes Unseld, no Pete Maravich, no Elvin Hayes, no Calvin Murphy, no Bob Lanier, no Rick Mount, no Dan Issel.
Most of all, no Lew Alcindor. The national player of the year from UCLA was like those other collegiate superstars too busy to represent the United States in the Olympic Games. It was a far cry from a decade earlier, when San Francisco All-American Bill Russell put his NBA career on hold for three months in order to play for the 1956 Olympic team in Melbourne, Australia.
AMERICA DOMINANT FROM 1936
Maybe it had all become too easy.
Since basketball was added to the Olympic lineup in 1936, the United States had won not only every gold medal, but every game it played at the quadrennial competition. The Russell-led 1956 team won its eight games with an average margin of 53.5 points. No opponent came within 27 points of the 1960 Jerry West/Oscar Robertson team in Rome. Bill Bradley and company beat the Soviet Union by "only" 14 points in the gold-medal game in Tokyo, but that was as close as anybody got in 1964.
It wasn't going to be the same in 1968. That much was evident in the months leading up to the Games, when Team USA traveled to the Soviet Union and lost two of three exhibition games. On the way back, the Americans stopped in Yugoslavia and lost two of three to that burgeoning hoop power.
American coach Hank Iba, who had guided the 1964 team to its easy gold, now was trying to build around a handful of talented players an unknown junior college big man, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, a second-team All-American guard from Kansas, and the ACC's first black superstar.
North Carolina's Charlie Scott had just completed his sophomore season in Chapel Hill when he accepted an invitation to try out for the Olympic team. The slender 6-5 guard teamed with Kansas star Jo Jo White to give Iba a superb backcourt, especially at the defensive end. Up front, the scoring came from 19-year-old juco Spencer Haywood (the youngest-ever American Olympic basketball player) and 23-year-old Mike Silliman, a former Bobby Knight product at West Point who was serving in the Army.
The supposedly vulnerable Americans breezed through the first games of pool play. White poured in 24 points to spark an upset of Yugoslavia, but Team USA followed that up with a near-disaster against Puerto Rico.
Still, Iba's team took an 8-0 record into the championship game. The opponent turned out to be Yugoslavia, which had upset the Soviets in the semifinals. The title game, played in front of a raucous anti-American crowd, more closely resembled the three pre-Olympic exhibitions in Belgrade than the earlier American win in Mexico City.
Somehow, Iba's team made it to halftime with a narrow 32-29 lead, but the hostile fans could sense the team's vulnerability. They were sure that with just a little more pressure, the hated Americans finally would lose an Olympic basketball game.
It didn't happen.
Instead, Team USA opened the second half of the title game in a full-court press. The key players were Scott and White, who unleashed their dazzling quickness and agility against the unsuspecting Yugoslav guards. Forcing turnover after turnover, the Americans scored the first 17 points of the period to blow the Yugoslavs and the world away.
SCOTT LEFT EARLY ACC IMPRINT
Charlie Scott came home with a gold medal around his neck.
Scott sometimes is remembered as the ACC's first black player. He's not Maryland's Billy Jones earned that honor but the former UNC All-American was the ACC's first black superstar.
In just the same way, Scott was not the first ACC player to earn an Olympic gold medal. Duke's Jeff Mullins and UNC's Larry Brown played for the 1964 American team in Tokyo. But Mullins and Brown played very minor roles for a team that cruised to victory. So, just as Scott was the first black player to make a difference in the ACC, he also was the first but far from the last ACC representative to make a major impact on the Olympic Games.
In fact, starting in 1964, every U.S. Olympic basketball team has boasted at least one representative from the ACC. Even more interesting is the role that the ACC has played in rescuing USA Basketball in its rare moments of crisis.
Not counting 1980, when Jimmy Carter's boycott prevented the United States from competing in Moscow, the American Olympic basketball team has failed to win the gold medal on just three occasions 1972, 1988 and 2004.
It's interesting to note that after two of those three defeats, an ACC coach was called in to revive America's international basketball fortunes.
CROSSROADS ARRIVED IN MUNICH
The ACC involvement in the U.S. Olympic basketball team skyrocketed after Mexico City.
In the 1972 Munich Games, N.C. State center Tom Burleson, UNC forward Bobby Jones and Maryland forward Tom McMillen all made the American team. In addition, South Carolina guard Kevin Joyce, who played most of his career in the ACC before that school's ill-advised pull-out from the league, was on the roster of the team that suffered a controversial loss to the Soviet Union in the gold-medal game.
Joyce played a huge role in Team USA's comeback from 10 points down with 10 minutes to play, scoring six straight points during the rally. And he was on the floor, along with McMillen, to defend the Soviets' final attempt after Doug Collins (father of future Duke guard and assistant coach Chris Collins) converted two free throws with three seconds left to give the USA a 50-49 lead.
McMillen was defending the inbounds pass on the baseline, but thanks to a misunderstanding of instructions from a Hungarian official who didn't speak English, the Maryland big man backed off and gave Ivan Edesko room to make a length-of-the-court pass to Aleksandr Belov, who caught the ball between Joyce and Jim Forbes and laid it in for the winning basket.
The furious controversy over the officiating and the clock management at the end of the game overshadowed an internal controversy over Iba's failure to use the 7-4 Burleson to defend, either under the basket or on the baseline. Also on the bench was UNC's 6-9 Jones, who later would be recognized as one of the great defensive players in NBA history. Iba also came under intense internal criticism for imposing a slow-paced, halfcourt game on a team of greyhounds.
The American failure in Munich shocked the nation's basketball elite out of their decades-long complacency over the nation's Olympic dominance. To most fans, it became vital to re-assert America's control of the sport it had invented and so long ruled with an iron hand. The key was to find a coach more in tune with the modern game than the 68-year-old Iba, whose greatest success had come in the mid-1940s.
UNC'S SMITH TO THE RESCUE
North Carolina's Dean Smith, who was 45 years old in 1976, was selected to fill that role by a committee that included Iba, Red Auerbach, Pete Newell, Wayne Embree and Dave Gavitt. The Tar Heel coach picked his good friend John Thompson and his right-hand man at UNC, Bill Guthridge, as his assistants.
Picking the 12-man roster for the 1976 U.S. Olympic team was far more controversial. When the team was announced after tryouts on the N.C. State campus in Raleigh, it included seven ACC players, including four from Smith's own UNC team.
"I didn't select the players; the selection committee did," Smith later wrote in his autobiography. "I had a single vote. I was allowed to advise the committee on the type of players I was looking for, but that was no guarantee that I would get the players I wanted. In fact, I lost several arguments."
Nevertheless, Smith became the target of critics who claimed that he stacked the team with his own players. He was blasted for cutting Marquette big man Bo Ellis, who actually quit during the second lap of Smith's required mile run, while keeping his own Tommy LaGarde, a big man who had played second fiddle to UNC's Mitch Kupchak during the 1975 season.
As it turned out, LaGarde did the same thing in Montreal that he had done for the Tar Heels. He provided a dependable backup to Kupchak, who averaged 12.5 points and 5.7 rebounds as Team USA's starting center. But the real key to the team's success was UNC point guard Phil Ford, who passed out 54 assists in six games and teamed with Indiana's Quinn Buckner to provide the team with peerless backcourt leadership.
Ford and Buckner helped Smith shut up his critics with a perfect record in Montreal. Team USA suffered one close call, a 95-94 victory over Puerto Rico.
Marquette guard Butch Lee, who was born on the Caribbean island but grew up in New York City, had wanted to play for the American team, but he didn't even receive an invitation to try out. Playing for Puerto Rico, Lee hit 15 of 18 shots from the floor and poured in 35 points to bring his team to the brink of a monumental upset. But Ford, who led the Americans with 20 points, hit two clinching free throws in the final seconds to give America the one-point win.
Smith's team won every other game by a wide margin, including a lopsided 95-74 victory over Yugoslavia in the gold-medal game.
The irony was that although Smith brought home the gold, his Olympic experience may have hurt him the next spring, when his Tar Heels faced Marquette in the NCAA title game. Ellis, the player Smith had cut for failing to finish his mile run, had 14 points and nine rebounds that night in Atlanta, while Lee, the guard never given a chance to make the American team, led the Warriors with 19 points.
There were certainly other factors that led to UNC's narrow loss that night such as Al McGuire's emotional retirement, and Smith's controversial use of the Four Corners but the Olympic frustrations of Ellis and Lee certainly provided those two key players with extra motivation in the championship game.
MORE LOSSES, ANOTHER CRISIS
The second Olympic crisis for America occurred in 1988, when Thompson led a team of collegians to the bronze medal in the Seoul Games.
On that occasion, USA Basketball took the radical step of replacing its collegiate lineups with a team of professionals. That first NBA "Dream Team," which featured ACC products Michael Jordan and Christian Laettner, immediately and spectacularly restored America's Olympic basketball glory in the 1992 Barcelona Games.
At first, the use of professional players allowed the Americans to dominate the world much as the college and AAU players did before 1972. But the world caught up quickly, and in 2004 a team of NBA stars coached by former UNC guard Larry Brown lost three times and was lucky to end up with a bronze.
That 5-3 record in Athens with a team that included Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Amare Stoudamire was a shocking result. That star-studded team lost more games in one Olympiad than the United States had lost in 14 previous Olympic appearances combined.
So, facing the greatest Olympic challenge since the early 1970s, to whom did USA Basketball turn?
Back to the ACC. Just as the response to America's 1972 failure was to bring in UNC's Smith, the response to the 2004 disaster was to hire Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.
NEW CENTERPIECE: KRZYZEWSKI
Actually, Coach K was merely the centerpiece of a three-year program adopted to restore America's international basketball position. Former NBA executive Jerry Colangelo, the new managing director of USA Basketball, recently explained the situation at a press conference.
"When Mike was selected to be the coach of this basketball team, we made a commitment to be together for three years," Colangelo said. "That covers the (2006) World Championships, the offseason which is now a qualifying year for us, and then the Olympic year. (Our goal is) keeping the coaches in place and keeping a core of players, rather than starting from scratch with each competition, which was the past history for USA Basketball.
"We put an infrastructure in that can last for a long, long time."
That's why few were discouraged when Krzyzewski's first Team USA came up a bit short last summer in the World Championships. The team of NBA veterans that Krzyzewski and his staff took to Japan did win eight of nine games, a much better record than George Karl's 2002 World Championship team (6-3, sixth place) or Brown's 2004 Olympians.
Of course, that's still a far cry from the heady days of 1992, when the first American "Dream Team" blew away the competition at the Barcelona Games.
"Coach K was with the 92 Dream Team (as an assistant), and I'm sure he can pontificate on this, but the players that played the Dream Team were intimidated by them. They wanted the autographs before they even played against them," Colangelo said. "That's over with, because of the influx of European and international players into the NBA. They now know they can compete. They do it on a daily basis. The competition will get tougher and tougher as we go forward. While we acknowledge that, it's still our game. We invented it. We just have to make sure we stay on top."
Team USA added eight players to its overall roster this spring, trying to give Krzyzewski the flexibility to construct a winning, 12-player team for Beijing. Last summer, Krzyzewski had plenty of NBA stars including James, Anthony and Wade from the 2004 Olympic team but could have used more muscle in the post and more experience at the point.
"When we had a coaches meeting a couple of weeks ago," Colangelo said, "we talked about how we needed more veteran leadership and maybe a couple of bigs."
More veteran leadership? How about New Jersey guard Jason Kidd, an eight-time NBA all-star and 13-year pro?
More bigs? How about former Duke star Carlos Boozer, whose break-out performance in the 2007 playoffs led Utah to the Western Conference final? And how about Stoudamire, the Phoenix all-pro, who was technically on the roster last summer but was recovering from an injury and unable to accompany the team to Japan?
Injuries, illness and family obligations are problems that have plagued USA Basketball for decades, even back in the era when college players represented the United States internationally. That's why the new, three-year plan includes a large, flexible roster from which the 12-man teams that will compete each summer will be chosen.
For instance, Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant was injured last summer and couldn't compete. But he's healthy now and could step in for Wade, who is missing this summer's competition with a shoulder injury.
Several other 2006 veterans also are taking this summer off, including Chris Paul, Gilbert Arenas, Paul Pierce, Lamar Odom and Brad Miller. Their spots are being filled by Kidd, Boozer, Utah point guard Deron Williams, Detroit swingman Tayshaun Prince, Memphis swingman Mike Miller, New Orleans big man Tyson Chandler and Kevin Durant, the 2007 consensus NCAA player of the year. Greg Oden, who is missing this summer's action with tonsillitis, is on the master roster and remains a candidate for next summer's Olympic team.
NEXT LANDMARK: BEIJING 2008
It was the job of Krzyzewski and his staff in late July and early August to fashion the two dozen players on hand at a tryout camp in Las Vegas into a 12-man team to compete in the Tournament of the Americas, which will be held Aug. 22-Sept. 2 at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas. The top two finishers in the Tournament of the Americas will qualify for the 2008 Games in Beijing. The next three finishers will qualify for the 12-team
FIBA qualifying event to be held July 7-13, 2008, at a site to be determined.
Of course, the ultimate goal is still the Beijing Olympics.
That's where Krzyzewski's reign as the U.S. coach will be judged. Win the gold, and like Smith in 1976 he can tell his critics to shove it. Finish anywhere other than first, though, and Coach K is fair game to questions about the wisdom of putting a college coach in charge of a bunch of pros.
It will be interesting to see how much of an ACC presence Krzyzewski takes with him to Beijing. Former N.C. State guard Nate McMillan, now the head coach in Portland, is an assistant. The master roster includes seven former ACC players: Boozer, Elton Brand, J.J. Redick and Shane Battier of Duke; Antawn Jamison of UNC; Chris Paul of Wake Forest; and Chris Bosh of Georgia Tech. But there's no telling how many will make the final Olympic team.
Krzyzewski, like Smith in 1972, isn't in total control of the selection process. But, again like Smith, his opinion will carry a lot of weight.
It will not be surprising to see Coach K turn to his own conference for help, just as Smith did successfully three decades ago. Americans will be hoping for similar results on the court next year in Beijing as well.
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