They are tucked away in a corner of the Olympics, two groups of sad-eyed men laboring in a tiny gymnasium on a steamy Southern night. In another part of town the basketball celebrities from the U.S. are preparing for their first performance in a huge arena filled with adoring fans and television cameras, but there is no such grandeur here for the teams from Lithuania and Croatia, which is what they expect. They have come here with no illusions. Even on this first night of competition, they know a gold medal is not in their future, and they do not hesitate to admit as much. They are not the wide-eyed dreamers who populate other Olympic teams and believe anything is possible. In their countries that kind of innocence dies young.
The game begins, and there is Toni Kukoc, Croatia's star forward, playing despite a broken left thumb that was expected to keep him on the sidelines. The lefthanded Kukoc shoots and passes brilliantly, scoring 33 points while grimacing in pain so often that it begins to seem like his natural expression. A few nights later a U.S. gymnast will complete a vault with torn ligaments in her ankle and become a national hero, but there will be no odes to Kukoc's courage in the newspapers tomorrow. For Lithuania, center Arvydas Sabonis thunders up and down the court, not letting his surgically scarred knees slow him. The teams play with pride and passion, neither squad able to break away from the other, and the mostly American spectators begin to put down their hot dogs and nachos and appreciate the small jewel of a game taking shape.
The buzzer sounds with the score tied 66-66, and the game heads into overtime, then into a second extra period. Lithuanian star Sarunas Marciulionis fouled out near the end of regulation, and when Sabonis follows him to the bench because of fouls in the second overtime, all seems lost for Lithuania. Croatia leads by three points in the waning moments, but Lithuanian guard Rimas Kurtinaitis responds with a four-point play when he is fouled while making a three-point shot, and Lithuania has a one-point lead. By now the small crowd is on its feet as the exhausted players try to summon the energy for one final push. Kukoc makes three free throws to regain a two-point advantage for Croatia. But it is Kurtinaitis again, drilling another three-pointer to put the Lithuanians back on top by one. This time Croatia has no answer, and Lithuania wins 83-81.
The Lithuanian players hug one another in wild celebration while the Croatians linger on the court, seemingly in a daze. Kukoc falls to his knees in disappointment and fatigue while the fans applaud the magnificence of what they have just seen. There is no NBC reporter to interview the victors, there will be no banner headlines in American papers tomorrow. The game will remain in the shadows, its story passing mostly by word of mouth. "I hear that was a great game the other night," someone says to Marciulionis a few days later. "You did not see it?" Marciulionis replies. 'Ah, my friend, if you had only seen it."