For Angola's basketball team, the over/under is 45 points Dream Team foe eyes moral victory

July 24, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- Angola men's Olympic basketball coach Victorino Cunha wants to lose to the United States by fewer than 45 points. For a Dream Team opponent, that amounts talking trash.

The United States won by an average of 51.5 at the Tournament of the Americas, and Cunha fully expects Angola to become its first Olympic victim Sunday. Still, his team is grateful even to participate, considering its war-torn road to Barcelona.

A little more than a year ago, the Angolans settled a civil war that lasted 16 years, a conflict that left thousands dead, including star forward Jean Jacques Conceicao's father and brother.

"The war destroyed everything -- schools, hospitals, roads and bridges," Cunha said after a two-hour practice yesterday. "But, in basketball, we worked very hard. In 15 years, we turned it around."

The war began almost the moment Angola gained its independence from Portugal in 1975. Not only did Cunha keep the national team intact, but he also turned it into an African power.

Cunha recalls losing to Portugal by 40 to 50 points in the mid-1970s, but today Angola routinely defeats its former colonial master. In January, it won its second African championship in three years. A crowd of 500,000 attended a parade that lasted five hours.

Granted, Nigeria competed in that African tournament without Hakeem Olajuwon, Zaire without Dikembe Mutombo and the Sudan without Manute Bol. But Angola is an impoverished nation with just 250 players and one 14,000-seat arena. Not exactly a basketball monster.

For all Angola has accomplished, Cunha has no illusions about Sunday. Asked about his team's chances of defeating the United States, the coach practically burst out laughing.

"It's impossible," he said. "I am not a crazy coach."

Cunha wants to keep the margin of defeat under 45. Angola guard Jose Guimaraes wants to keep the Dream Team from scoring 100.

"They played slowly in Portland," Guimaraes said, referring to the Tournament of the Americas, "and scored 130."

What about stopping Michael Jordan, Jose?

"Me? Never," Guimaraes continued, incredulous. "Nobody stops Michael Jordan. In the NBA, do you see anybody stop Michael Jordan? It's impossible. He's the best."

Guimaraes, 28, is one of six Angolans who play professionally in Portugal, and earns a salary that approaches $100,000. He said he watches NBA games every Saturday morning, and videotapes when he can.

At practice, the Angolans displayed quick moves and exceptional leaping ability, but raw skills. Their tallest player is 6 feet 8. Guimaraes, considered their second-best talent, didn't begin playing until he was 16.

Cunha knows his team will be overmatched Sunday, but he dismissed the notion that Angola will play zone defense. He much prefers relentless, man-to-man pressure, even against the Dream Team.

"We know the NBA doesn't like defense," said Cunha, who worked briefly with former St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca while visiting the United States in 1980. "We'll pressure the ball, overload passing lanes, fly to rebounds."

Cunha made it sound so easy that NBC analyst and former Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Fratello muttered, "Big mistake, coach, big mistake." Crazy as it sounds, Fratello apparently feared the Dream Team actually might interpret the remark as bulletin-board material.

Cunha, however, was simply revealing his strategy. In fact, he called the Dream Team "the most powerful team ever made since 1891, when basketball was invented."

Sunday's game will be televised back to Angola, and Cuhna said an audience of 10 million is expected. "In 50-60 years," Guimaraes said, "I can put my own tape on and say, 'This is me, playing against the best players in the world.' "

Guimaraes isn't scared.

"I feel good," he said. "For me, it's a dream."

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