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Monsters Of The Mundobasket
Curry Kirkpatrick
July 28, 1986
The U.S. rose up to defeat the U.S.S.R. in Madrid and win its first world basketball title since 1954
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July 28, 1986

Monsters Of The Mundobasket

The U.S. rose up to defeat the U.S.S.R. in Madrid and win its first world basketball title since 1954

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As the legend of Arvidas Sabonis grew to epic proportions, encompassing vast territories that dwarfed even Birdland, it was difficult to separate reality from myth at the World Basketball Championships that concluded Sunday in Spain. Was the 7'2" agricultural student and Soviet basketball superstar already, at 22, a double-chinned international cross between Maradona and Andre the Giant? Or was he just some Lithuanian barfly with Stolichnaya elbow, a guy so storied that his countrymen sometimes order vodka by asking for "a Sabonis"? Was he a pampered, overrated loafabout who chastised teammates, ordered coaching changes and seldom played hard because he was bored with the competition? Or was he the model of new cage brilliance, a master of the 70-foot underhand grenade pass, the no-look running hook and, even now, after being drafted by the NBA not once but twice, the best shamateur basketball player in the world?

And what of Sabonis's Soviet teammates? How quick, stylish and machinelike were they? How frantic was their running, how perfect their passing? How positively terrific were they? With the mustachioed guard, Valdis Valters, and his partner, Rimas Kurtinaitis; with 6'9" forward, Alexander Volkov, a 22-year-old Mick Jagger in short pants, and his opposite cornerman, Valerei Tikhonenko, the menacing garbageman whose angularity and ball-foraging earned him the nickname Weasel—this was no group of 1950s-style clunkers.

This was the team that, shooting daggers on the run, passing like the Blazers ( Portland, '77) and banging flesh and boards with equal virtuosity all over Spain, averaged 107 points in nine victories during the Mundobasket and in the medal-round semifinals in Madrid, rallied from nine points behind in the last 47 seconds to tie and then beat in overtime their hated rival, Yugoslavia.

Why was Team U.S.A., a pickup group culled from leftovers, mostly skin and bone, raw and inexperienced, and losers besides in the round-robin to—�por favor!—Argentina, why was this team able to stay in the same championship game in Madrid's Palacio de Deportes against the mighty Soviets?

This is why:

David Robinson, the 6'11" NCAA tournament star, spent his Iberian holiday learning to adapt his considerable defensive skills from the U.S. Naval Academy's 2-3 zone to a brutal hombre-a-hombre method, of which the old salt, Popeye, would have been envious. Undergraduates such as Pittsburgh's big Charles Smith and Wake Forest's little Muggsy Bogues created all sorts of problems that the pitifully coached Soviets had never experienced while feeding off all those Angolans and Uruguayans. And because ACC videotapes have not yet made it to Moscow, or else Sabonis would have known that in the vital closing moments of the final, North Carolina's Kenny Smith would explode out of the U.S. team's cuatro rincones—that's four corners to you, Sabo—and come roaring down the pipe to juke and soar and lay in the winning bucket for the Americans' 87-85 victory.

As blas� and uninterested as the Soviets seemed early (the U.S. twice held 10-point first-half leads), as confused as they appeared later (behind 78-60 with less than eight minutes left, Sabonis and friends looked like, oh, Wichita State on a bad night), Mundobasket regulars figured the defending champions had one last answer.

Bogues (10 steals, 5 assists) had long since taken Valters out of the game with his defense. Guard Tommy Amaker of Duke had lofted several long baskets, and up front, Robinson (20 points) and Charles Smith (17) were giving back all they got from Sabonis. Despite all that, U.S. coach Lute Olson of Arizona had his squad toy with the clock, and the team became too cute and tentative.

After Sabonis finally came alive with two vicious dunks—he would finish with 16 points and 11 rebounds in only 27 minutes—the U.S. lead was 81-73 with 4:41 left. After Valdemaras (Syllables) Khomichus, he of the Michael Douglas straight-back, wet look and of the shot that crushed the U.S. at the buzzer in the '85 World University Games, scored the next 10 Soviet points, the score was 85-83 with less than 40 seconds to go.

Now panic reared. The huge U.S. lead seemed likely to turn inside out as it had at the world championship final in Cali, Colombia, four years ago when Doc Rivers missed an open jumper and the U.S.S.R. won 95-94. But here came the rincones, and as the clock struck :25, Kenny Smith jetted up to score the last of his game-high 23 points. "The opening was there all night," he said. "I just had to get it high enough over him."

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