There were plenty of startling revelations at last week's U.S. Olympic Basketball Trials: the precocious play of an 18-year-old Georgetown-bound man-child, 6'9" Alonzo Mourning; the spidery defense of UNLV's Stacey Augmon; the versatility of Georgia's 6'6" Willie Anderson: the fearless lead-guard play of Virginia Tech's Bimbo Coles, who raised the question of whether anyone named Bimbo can rightly be an Olympian.
But it was someone in street shoes who stole the show, or at least tried to hide it; this guy made even Olympic coach John Thompson, whose relationship with the press has never been intimate, look like the Media Man of the Year. The man in question, Bill Wall, is executive director of the Amateur Basketball Association of the U.S.A. (ABAUSA), the governing body that staged the Olympic trials. Unfortunately, Wall confuses wearing a blazer with wrapping oneself in the flag. As 93 candidates drilled at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, they were observed by some 50 NBA scouts, by representatives of athletic shoe companies and by at least one agent. The media, however, were banned on the grounds that they would constitute, in Wall's phrase, "a distraction."
Wall offered several other reasons for locking out the press—among them, that "interviews don't help in the selection process" and that "we don't need the publicity." Never mind that the trials in all other sports are open, including the one for women's hoops, which was held in April; or that the U.S. Olympic Committee finds Wall's policy appalling; or even that the public, which through its donations helps sponsor the Olympic basketball program, might appreciate the coverage. Many news organizations, including The New York Times, The Boston Globe and the Philadelphia Daily News, refused on principle to send any reporters to Colorado Springs last week, and two groups—the United States Basketball Writers Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors—considered legal action.
Finally, thanks in part to the intercession of Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt, a "pool" arrangement was hammered out by which eight reporters observed the afternoon scrimmages only and were expected to share their notes with other journalists.
But Sunday's exhibition doubleheader in Denver's McNichols Arena was genuinely public. By then, Thompson had pared the original 93 invitees to 47. Before anyone could rue the cutting of Indiana center Dean Garrett, Mourning demonstrated that he might be the man to back up shoo-in starting center David Robinson, late of the Naval Academy, who ran the floor surprisingly well for someone who has played nothing but service ball for the past eight months. In the opening five minutes of the second half of the first game, with his team trailing by nine. Mourning sank two free throws, completed a three-point play in traffic, hit a couple of jumpers and blocked two shots. When he left the floor, his team led by two, and his primary victim, Syracuse's Rony Seikaly, was left wondering what he had missed in high school. "People started off asking me if Alonzo's here because he's going to Georgetown," said Thompson before Saturday's scrimmage. "I don't hear that question any longer."
At the very least, Mourning promises to be one of the 20 or so players Thompson will take to the Georgetown campus for intensive workouts in July. The 12-man Seoul patrol chosen from that group will feature quickness rather than bulk, notwithstanding the notorious contact common in international play. Thompson's aphorism is "You can't push what you can't catch." Nor will he be overly concerned with assembling a cast of three-point shooters; instead. Thompson's troops will jealously defend three-point territory. The most scrutinized drills last week involved players' fighting over screens, denying passes to the wing and recovering to straight man-to-man alignment after double-downs on the post.
Similarly, Thompson is more likely to choose a bigger defensive guard (a Mitch Richmond of Kansas State, for example) than a pure point guard like DePaul's Rod Strickland, unless someone (B.J. Armstrong of Iowa? Bimbo of the Hokies?) proves he can defend and dish. Players like Anderson, Arizona's Sean Elliott, Bradley's Hersey Hawkins and Kansas's Danny Manning don't need a point man to lead them, provided thievery and shot-blocking get them the ball in the open floor. "We feel we have to pressure, extend the defense and go downcourt and score." says Thompson.
As part of this philosophy, Thompson figures to pick at least one defensive specialist. As of Sunday night it looked as if it could even be the little-known Augmon. After the UNLV sophomore-to-be turned in the week's only effective defensive job on Hawkins, the 1987-88 NCAA scoring champ, an assistant told him, "You did a great job on Hawkins."
"Who's he?" said Augmon.
Thompson couldn't have scripted a better line. His method of determining who his kind of player is involves more than just watching drills and scrimmages. The dorm staff spent the week trying to gauge candidates' adaptability and feel out their personalities. "I want to know if they're complaining that the toilet paper's not there," says Thompson, "rather than going out and getting the toilet paper." A short tour of Europe in mid-June, in which as many as half a dozen Olympic candidates will take part, has been billed as a shakedown cruise to get Robinson back into competitive fettle, but it will also likely serve as a chance to see whether notable talents but moody personalities such as Strickland and Florida's Dwayne Schintzius are able to function abroad as part of a team.