Through the semifinals of the Pan American Games, it was impossible for any sport to be more boring than men's basketball. Synchronized swimming and roller hockey drew bigger crowds. Fans couldn't unload basketball tickets for half price.
The U.S. men's team won its first five games by an average of 25 points. The last-place team in the Big Sky Conference could have beaten Uruguay by 20. The entire basketball competition, as it shaped up, seemed a mismatch. Denny Crum kept talking about how the "rest of the world" was catching up, then his team would go out and win by 40.
Until the gold medal game, that is, when absolutely the most wonderful thing in the world happened to amateur basketball, in and out of the United States: The U.S. lost.
A team that one network sportscaster called "the best U.S. team in 20 years" fell, 120-115, to a Brazilian team of two shooters and a bunch of guys who would be benched if they did shoot. This has become The Game That Won't Go Away. And it all makes you wonder if we should believe Crum and Bobby Knight and all the other coaches who have been screaming for years about "the rest of the world" catching up, whether there is any fundamental problem with U.S. basketball, and whether we had our best team on the floor at the Pan Am Games in the first place.
In reverse order, let's look at the team. It reflected Crum's style at Louisville. Emphasis on quickness, half-court defense, not a lot of good shooters. This Pan Am team wasn't much different. Bulkier J.R. Reid of North Carolina was passed over in favor of thin shotblocker Dean Garrett of Indiana and Crum's own lithe forward, Pervis Ellison. Two of the "small" forwards, Ricky Berry and Willie Anderson, are hardly the kind of hulksters often needed in international competition.
The U.S. shooters? We're still waiting to see them. The fact that the Pan American team didn't have anybody who could master one of the basic fundamentals of the game -- shooting a jump shot -- says little about Crum, but everything about U.S. basketball. Pure jump shooters have become virtually extinct in college basketball. What we have now is an entire nation aspiring to be Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins and Clyde Drexler.
"I'm telling you that there aren't many shooters in the country," John Thompson, the 1988 Olympic coach, said the other day. "Very few, in fact. Things in basketball, as in any other sport, move in trends. And the trend in college basketball the last few years has gone toward the transition game, full-court pressure defense."
While the U.S. players are looking for high-percentage, closer-to-the-basket shots that count for two points, Brazil's Oscar Schmidt is gunning from anywhere and making them count for three. Schmidt's idea of a high-percentage shot: "If it leaves my hands, it's a good shot." A coach can't have his defense wait to pick up Schmidt in the front court, as Crum did. In NCAA basketball, coaches tell their players, "That's the shot we want him to take; if he goes out there, let him have it." But with Schmidt and a dozen other bombers around the world, that's an invitation to wind up in the losers' bracket in Seoul next year.
The loss to Brazil was no fluke. The U.S. teams in international competition have done well over the past two decades, but lost in the Olympics in 1972 and the Pan Am Games in 1971. In addition, teams from the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and South America continue to improve and become more competitive. Two years ago, France beat the United States in Jones Cup amateur competition. Last year in the world championships, Argentina beat the United States and Yugoslavia nearly did. Puerto Rico was within one basket of the U.S. team with less than a minute to play in the Pan Am semifinals that preceded the loss to Brazil.
Of course, "the rest of the world" uses high-paid professionals, while the United States is still playing with college underclassmen. (The international governing body for amateur basketball has seen fit to draw a distinction between the NBA and "professional" leagues overseas.)
Nevertheless, complaining isn't going to help Thompson or his Olympic team in 1988. Brazil's Marcel Souza told the U.S. players before the game, "You are so quick, so graceful." The U.S. players are superior inside players. "Always, they will be No. 1," Schmidt said. But what the United States learned is that so many of these foreign teams, while behind in raw talent, are wily and resourceful.
One thing that's nearly certain is that Thompson will use last Sunday's upset to his advantage. As Thompson said in a recent conversation, "When you pick a coach, you also pick his philosophy." So the Olympic basketball team will look a lot like the Georgetown teams, with an emphasis on pressure defense. Oscar Schmidt will find it harder to get off three- pointers with someone inches from his face from base line to base line. Whether Thompson can find the outside shooters he wants is another question.