Olympic rings are about more than ringing up blowout scores

Phil Jackman

July 02, 1992|By Phil Jackman

In the book, "The Story of the Olympic Games," there's a passage starting a review of the III Olympiad in St. Louis that reads, "Looking over the record, the question arises as to whether the Olympic Games of 1904 were a sweeping victory for the United States or a broad farce as a program of international athletic competition. Of the 22 track and field events, U.S. athletes won 21."

No matter what happens with our so-called Dream Team of NBA stars at the Summer Olympics in Spain later this month -- and, seriously, can there be any doubt? -- the above assessment figures to serve as a prologue.

Grenada, Panama, the basketball venue in Barcelona. So much for Baron Pierre de Courbetin's pie-in-the-sky notion that participation be the ultimate goal of Olympic sport as it helps promote international amity in broader fields.

Thing is, it's not as though the old Red, White and Blue hadn't performed handsomely under our previous system of sending amateurs (by definition) as our representatives. A record of 84-2 constitutes a winning percentage of .977; hey, that ain't good enough?

The popular line is that we had fallen on tough times in international competition and this could not be tolerated. After all, hoops is our game. Bull! If the people who control basketball as it pertains to worldwide play feel so strongly about those perceived embarrassments at the world championships, fine. Let them put together an unbeatable machine to wrest that title.

No way, that's not the flag-waving, fund-raising, product-promoting made-for-TV extravaganza the Games have become. This dollar-induced attack by the sport, the country and the media on the Olympic Ideal, as bruised and battered as it is, is unconscionable.

For nearly eight Olympiads we were unstoppable, a string of 62 victories being recorded by an average score of 79-46. Great memories carried on of the "Kentucky gang" in 1948, Bob Kurland, Bill Russell, the fabulous 1960 squad of Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Walt Bellamy and Jerry Lucas and the kid from Detroit, Spencer Haywood, doing it all in '68.

That run concluded with the infamous "three endings" loss to the Soviet Union in 1972, but we were secure in the knowledge that we weren't the victims of a controversial decision but out-and-out grand theft.

Two more gold medals and 21 more victories were added before the semifinals in Seoul four years ago when, for the first time zTC since 1936 and Berlin, we were beaten on the square by the Soviets, 82-76.

We were still producing hundreds of basketball players just shy of NBA talent, but the opposition had closed the gap and what little help the likes of Sarunas Marciulionis, Arvidas Sabonis and Rimas Kurtinaitis needed, ruinous Yankee strategy provided.

Rounding up these ringers to cavort joyously to 60-point victories isn't the worst part of this caper. It took a bit of coercion on the part of sponsors, the public and the NBA to shanghai some players aboard the good ship slaughter and right there hoping to turn the whole show into "August Madness" and "The Road to Barcelona" is NBC. Pity.

Christian Laettner of Duke wasn't practicing with his pro brethren for a week when he thought what lies ahead. "It's going to be bad," he said. "I think fans will be bored as hell watching us." No dummy, he.

* A couple of things you might not have been aware of regarding Olympic hoops:

* Basketball wasn't introduced to the Games in Berlin in 1936 as is popularly thought. There was a tournament at the St. Louis Games in 1904, which were pretty much a travesty because not only didn't powerhouses Great Britain and France send teams but the U.S. colleges and athletic clubs boycotted the event.

* Adolf Hitler and his gang knew nothing from hoops in '36, so while a half-dozen stadiums had monstrous seating capacity, the basketball tourney was placed at an outdoor tennis facility where rain turned the clay to mud. In the final, players couldn't even bounce the ball or stand up and the U.S. beat France just 19-8.

* Our very first official team in 1936 was made up mainly of players who worked at Universal Studios in Hollywood and played ball for fun on the side.

* An Olympic tourney had already started one year when it was suggested that a limit of 6 feet 3 be placed on all players. The U.S. screamed bloody murder and the suggestion died.

* As far back as 1952 (Helsinki) the Soviets were a threat, losing just 36-25 to the Clyde Lovellette team.

* The 1960 cast won eight games by an average score of 102-59, a feat even for this all-NBA gang.

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