John Thompson, coach of the U.S. Olympic basketball team, would probably be loath to admit this, seeing as he's busy trying to persuade his players that they'll get a stout test in Seoul from a European team, but last week's European Olympic qualifying tournament in Rotterdam proved that something is still fundamentally funny about hoops in the Old World.
Finland played without its best player, Kari-Tekka Klinga, because he couldn't get off work. French coach Jean Galle skipped his team's preparatory tour in May to coach a French club team. The Yugoslavs, breathtakingly good at times, could be even better if a few of their young stars would quit chain-smoking. It's an open secret that the Soviet Union wins in spite of, not thanks to, its coach, Aleksandr Gomelsky. And host Holland, which flamed out before the final round, had to content itself with the news that 7'4" national-team no-show Rik Smits, late of Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was chosen No. 2 in last month's NBA draft by the Indiana Pacers. SMITS TO PLAY NEXT YEAR IN DRAFT Crowed One Dutch newspaper, as if Draft were a place, like Delft.
Indeed, by Sunday night it was hard to sort out exactly what had been won on the floor from what had been lost in translation, except that the three European representatives in Seoul will be Spain, Yugoslavia and the U.S.S.R., which finished the round-robin tournament unbeaten. Teams from two countries where basketball is enjoying an unprecedented vogue, Italy and Greece, performed gallantly but missed out on a trip to the Games. "I have asked that the rules be changed," said Gomelsky quite rightly. "It's a mistake that only three European teams qualify."
The most curious quintet at the Ahoy Sports Palace turned out to be an Irish side: The Boston Celtics contingent included coach Jimmy Rodgers, player personnel director K.C. Jones, general manager Jan Volk and scouts Forddy Anderson and Misho Ostarcevic. Being the Celtics, they even brought along a sixth man, owner Donald Gaston. Like the 15 or so other NBA folk in attendance, the men from Boston were ogling such undrafted or unsigned talents as Andres Jimenez, 25, a 6'9" forward from Spain; Sharunas Marchulenis, 24, a 6'3" guard who is the Soviets' vastly enlarged version of Gail Goodrich; and the Yugoslav prodigies, 6'11" Vlado Divac, 20, and 6'9" Tony Kukoc, 19, whom Marty Blake, the NBA's director of scouting, calls "the two best young players in the world."
A foreign player is eligible for the NBA draft in the calendar year in which he turns 22. When an NBA team chooses a player—Yugoslav guard Drazen Petrovic, now 23, was taken in 1986 by the Portland Trail Blazers, and Soviet forward Aleksandr Volkov, 24, was selected by the Atlanta Hawks in the same draft—it retains the rights to him in perpetuity. (If a player isn't drafted at 22, he becomes a free agent.) For young talents like Divac—"an NBA power forward right now," says Pacer general manager Donnie Walsh—or the sharpshooting Kukoc, the scouts just salivate and count the days until eligibility.
"There are only two college centers of any consequence in next year's draft," says Blake. "One of them [ Oklahoma's Stacey King] is really a forward, and the other [ Missouri's Gary Leonard] averaged five points a game last season. Ten guys here are prospects. You shouldn't have to ask why we're here."
After having successfully integrated such aliens as Akeem Olajuwon, Detlef Schrempf and Christian Welp in recent years, NBA teams picked Smits, Rolando Ferreira of Brazil, Jose Vargas and Tito Horford of the Dominican Republic and Hernan Montenegro and Jorge Gonzalez (7'7", 370 pounds and "no stiff," says Blake) of Argentina in this year's draft. That's six foreigners in a three-round draft. Clearly the NBA and the rest of the basketball world are moving closer together, the process having been nudged along by the summiteering of NBA commissioner David Stern and Borislav Stankovic of Yugoslavia, the secretary general of the Federation Internationale de Basketball Amateur (FIBA). Stankovic will convene a special session of FIBA next April, at which approval is expected for NBA players to compete in the 1990 World Championships in Buenos Aires and in the ensuing Olympics.
The main focus of interest for the out-sized Boston delegation in Holland was Stojan Vrankovic of Yugoslavia, a 7-foot center whom the Celtics have signed to play in 1988-89 for an estimated $200,000. He's 24, with the same long arms, shot-blocking aptitude and Draculean pallor as Kevin McHale, though he lacks McHale's facility at the offensive end. "You can't teach height, quickness or jumping ability," says Volk, ticking off qualities that Vrankovic has in abundance.
The Celtics would seem to have perpetrated another Auerbachian heist, except that after signing with Boston during the spring, Vrankovic also came to terms with Cibona, a club in Zagreb. Then he signed a contract with his old team, Zadar. As full of potential as Vrankovic is, no one would be satisfied with one third of his services, least of all Boston.
However, in a few weeks Vrankovic plans to marry a woman who will bear his child soon thereafter. Friends and teammates say that after the long Olympic campaign he'll want nothing less than to relocate his family in a strange land. Vrankovic says he'll decide after the Olympics, perhaps while puffing on one of his favored unfiltered cigarettes. His teammate Petrovic, who strung along Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps in 1984 by committing to play for the Irish and then never leaving Yugoslavia, thinks he knows what that decision will be. "Vrankovic will marry and stay with Zadar one more year," says the original Yunogo. "He's not decided, but I think he will do that."