From 1975 to 2002 the southwest African country of Angola endured a civil war that killed as many as one million people and forced nearly a third of the population of 13 million to flee their homes. Today a truce is in place, but life is still hard.
That the former Portuguese colony maintained a national basketball team through the decades of war is remarkable. That the team has won seven African championships since 1989 and will be—for the fourth straight time—the continent's only representative in the Olympic basketball tournament is, in the words of its coach, Mario Palma, "an absolute miracle."
Fans in the U.S. may remember Angola as the squad crushed by the Dream Team 116-48 in Barcelona in 1992 and 87-54 in Atlanta four years later. In the '92 blowout Charles Barkley played the ugly American by elbowing lanky forward Herlander Coimbra to the floor after incidental contact between the two. "You hit me, I'll hit you," Barkley said afterward. "Even if it does look like he hasn't eaten in a while."
The Angolan team is no joke in Luanda, the capital city of 4.5 million, where basketball rims hang from bullet-scarred apartment buildings. When the Angolans' undersized lineup (no player taller than 6'9") takes the court for the team's Olympic opener on Aug. 15 against European champion Lithuania, "there won't be a person on the streets," says Luanda resident Manuel Cudivila, an avid fan. "Everyone will be watching the games on TV"
The team is a symbol of hope and pride in a country that over the years has had little of either. A source of slaves for centuries, Angola spent most of the 20th century under Fascist or Communist rule. Shortly after Portugal granted the country its independence in 1975, the civil war broke out, leading most of the national basketball team members to move away.
An Angolan coach named Victorino Cunha took it upon himself to rebuild the team, and with support from the beleaguered government, he succeeded. Cunha developed his players with arduous practice, smart coaching, weight training and improved nutrition.
For the past five years the national squad has been overseen by Palma, who is Portuguese and coached in the European pro leagues before taking the Angolan job. Despite a lineup that includes African tournament MVP Miguel Lutonda at guard and former Valparaiso standout Joaquim Gomez at forward, Palma knows that his team (2-15 in Olympic play) will be an underdog in every game in Athens.
"We'll try to lose by fewer than 30 points," he says of Angola's Aug. 23 matchup with the U.S. Seeing their squad give the Dream Team a good game would be reason for Angolans to reprise their 2003 African championship celebration in Luanda. "People ran into the streets," Palma says. "That day they parried, they enjoyed themselves, they cried, they danced. They completely forgot their problems."