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Jack McCallum
March 23, 1992
Olympic-Sized Squabble
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March 23, 1992

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Let's assume that the aforementioned gamesmanship ends happily and USA Basketball sends the team it selected. In that case, the following news is not likely to make Jordan and Ewing quiver in their sneakers: The political turmoil that a few months ago threatened to turn the Olympic basketball competition into a joke has been resolved, at least to the point that the U.S.'s chief rivals for the gold will field good teams in Barcelona. These rivals won't be called Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, though. Now they're Croatia and Lithuania.

Croatia, whose players once competed under the Yugoslav flag, and Lithuania, formerly a part of the Soviet Union, have been recognized as Olympic nations by the International Olympic Committee. And barring an upset in European qualifying play, these two teams will be competing in the Olympics. And they'll have plenty of familiar faces.

Croatia's team will include Toni Kukoc, widely recognized as the best player in Europe; Drazen Petrovic of the Nets; Dino Radja, the big center who once spurned the Celtics; and Stojko Vrankovic, another big center who is currently occupying the spot on the Celtics roster that would be more adequately filled by Radja. Croatia also has several outstanding young players.

Is that enough to challenge the U.S.'s star-spangled all-stars? Probably not. But it might be enough to give the U.S. a competitive game. Kukoc is currently playing for Benetton Treviso in the Italian League, and the multitalented 6'10" southpaw is still one of the best players in the world. Petrovic, a shooting guard, is one of the NBA's most improved players; and Radja, many believe, could be a starting center in the NBA.

Croatia will not, however, have the services of Laker center Vlade Divac, who is a Serbian and is expected to compete for Yugoslavia. That country's only other well-known Olympic player is likely to be Zarko Paspalj, a 6'9" forward who played—with limited success—for the Spurs during the 1989-90 season. Yugoslavia, which won the silver in Seoul in 1988, does not appear to be a medal threat in Barcelona.

The first meeting of Croatia and Yugoslavia, which will probably take place in the final round of the European Qualification Tournament in Zaragoza, Spain, in early summer, should be interesting. The civil war has driven a wedge between such former teammates as Divac and Petrovic. They talked briefly at midcourt in the Forum when the Nets were in Los Angeles on March 4, but not about politics. "We're still friends, but we don't talk like we used to," says Petrovic. "It's because of the war."

Warrior guard Sarunas Marciulionis has taken over—with typical enthusiasm—the care and feeding of the Lithuanian Olympic team. Lithuania supplied the Soviet Union with much of its gold medal talent in '88. Marciulionis will have help from another familiar name, 7'3" center Arvidas Sabonis, once considered the best player in the world, and help outside from two veteran guards, Rimas Kurtinaitis and Valdemaras Khomicius. Lithuania probably won't be as strong as Croatia, never mind the U.S.

In what is sure to be an emotional encounter, Lithuania will meet the Unified Team, which represents most of the former Soviet republics that have banded together in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), in the European qualifying event.

Alexander Volkov of the Atlanta Hawks, a starter at forward along with Marciulionis and Sabonis on the great Soviet teams of the '80s, faces a far more uncertain situation than the others. He agreed in February to play in Barcelona for the Unified Team but lately has had second thoughts. Except for veteran Valeri Tikhonenko, Volkov says he has no idea who his teammates will be.

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