SEOUL, South Korea — It ended quietly, with no screams of “Foul play!” or “How could they!” Not this time., The U.S. Olympic basketball players were walking off the court at Chamshil gymnasium, their heads down, their hearts broken. They had lost the game their country had awaited for 16 years. It felt horrible and empty and there was nothing they could do about it.
Fair and square
“Wait a minute,” you could almost hear the American public say, after the United States fell, 82-76. “Russia won? That’s not in the script. We’re not supposed to lose again.”
We did. For only the second time in Olympic history. The first was in 1972, a game they’re still fighting over. They will not fight over this one. Stunning. Devastating. The Russians shot down the young Americans with a single click of their rifle. There was blood on that court. The dream was dead.
Here was Dan Majerle, who moments earlier had grabbed a missed free throw and banked it in and the crowd came unglued — his team would come back, right? But now he was walking in hopeless circles, defeated, lost, looking for an answer.
Here was Willie Anderson, who moments earlier had stolen a ball and gone in for a slam — cut the lead to 79-76, with 15 seconds left — still hope, still alive! But now he was leaving the court in the slowest of steps. A ball rolled his way and he picked it up, threw it at the backboard and didn’t bother to watch.
“Wait a minute,” America said, “shouldn’t they be celebrating. Weren’t we supposed to win?
Maybe we were. But we did not. Sloppy play by the Americans, poor performances by Danny Manning and J.R. Reid, and a heady, hot-shooting night by the Russians, and this semifinal game was gone. The United States can only hope for the bronze medal now. It’s Russia’s gold to win.
“Wait a minute,” America said. “Wait a minute . . . “
This was not the ending we had planned, not the ending we had dreamed about in 1976, and 1980, and 1984. Glasnost is a good concept, a fine concept, but in this arena, this night, this one Olympic basketball game, all that mattered was winning, to either side.
“We came to win the gold,” said a still-stunned Majerle, who scored 15 points. “I can’t even describe my disappointment. We really wanted to win this game. We played hard all summer. We played hard in the Olympics. We just didn’t play well tonight. . . . “
He shook his head.
“We picked a bad night not to play well.”
Where was the American dominance? Where was the great defense and the hot shooting and the speed that we had heard about? The Russian team — which, admittedly, has been together far longer and is far older — looked like adults playing with teenagers Tuesday night. Every scramble seemed to end in a Soviet possession. Every critical rebound seemed to find its way to Soviet hands. Every easy U.S basket was met by an easy Soviet basket.
“Can you describe your disappointment?” someone asked Manning afterward.
He bit his lip. He shook his head.
“No,” he whispered. “I can’t.”
Everyone knew what this showdown meant. Forget that it was only the semifinals, forget that the gold medal would be determined by the next game. There are hoop kids in America who would give their shooting arm to play in the contest. Because it wasn’t just about now, it was about then, history, 16 years ago on a cool Munich evening that nobody who follows basketball can forget. . . .
It was a game that still gives people a stomach ache, maybe the most controversial affair in the history of international basketball. It was a Sunday night, late, nearly midnight, when the two teams took the floor. And after nearly two hours of head-banging play, here was the United States, trailing by a point with six seconds left — and the Russians had the ball. American fans moaned as defeat seemed inevitable, and then Doug Collins somehow wound up with a steal, he was fouled horribly, but he shook it off and sank two free throws and America went crazy. The Americans led for the first time, 50-49. Only three seconds left! They were going to win!
They were going to lose. The officials seemed almost intent on it. The Soviets got three chances to in-bound the ball, the demons were laughing now, a length-of-the-court pass went to their big man, 6-foot-7 Sasha Belov, who caught the ball, pushed through two U.S. defenders and banked in a lay-up as the buzzer sounded. What? No foul? Are they crazy? What’s going on? And suddenly the Soviets were leaping into a victorious pile, the scoreboard read 51-50, no time left, the fans were screaming, the Americans were stunned, and TV sets throughout the United States were being kicked across the living room.
The game was protested. The protest was turned down. The U.S. players refused their silver medals — they sit still in a bank vault in Munich. And today, those players have nothing to show for 1972 except the memories. And a quiet hope for revenge. Tuesday was to be the night.
After 16 years.
It was not to be. You could see the problems coming in the first half. The Americans alternated between bad passes and forced shots. The Soviets seemed to get two and three chances for each shot. They spread the floor with their guards, making it difficult for the Americans to apply any pressure defense. And when the guards shot, it was often from three-point range, where they hit as if they had invented the shot. Rimas Kourtinaitis, a slight player with a rock-star blond haircut, arched one triplet after another. (He finished
with 28 points.) Arvydas Sabonis, playing with three fouls, still managed to bank the ball off the glass and catch the rebound and drop it in. (He finished with 13.) It was a 10-point lead at halftime, and the arena was grim as the American players left the floor.
The second half was closer, which only made it more frustrating. The Americans closed the gap, again and again, but never for long. There was always one more Soviet player free, one more three-pointer, one more open lay-up. And when Kourtinaitis banked in that last basket as the clock ran out, it was yet another victorious pile of Russian players.
“How will you deal with being only the second team to lose in Olympic history?” someone asked U.S. coach John Thompson.
“I think they’ll let us back in the country,” he said. “I would hope the American public is sophisticated enough not to denigrate the efforts of a team based solely on the results of one game.
“If not, a lot of us will have to go to different countries.”
Not necessary. They will be welcomed home, medal or no medal. It was just a game, and there will be a four-year wait before another rematch.
So be it. It doesn’t seem like the right ending, does it? Somehow we figured that all the time spent waiting would somehow ensure justice for the 1972 fiasco. But these are different players and a different game, and the basketball knows no past, only the present.
What happens to a dream deferred? It chills and stiffens and turns to bronze, and that is all the U.S. team can hope for. It’s Russia’s gold to win now.
The wait was just a wait. CUTLINES
David Robinson of the US. tries to grab the ball away from Tiit Sokk of the Soviet Union Tuesday night.
Soviest Avridas Sabonis battles Mitch Richmond of the U.S. for a rebound Tuesday.