Meanwhile Sabonis, who in the early games of the tournament looked puffy and slow after a year and a half of virtual inactivity because of a bum Achilles tendon, grew into his role as the hub of the Soviet offense. "Sabonis, 18 months no practice," Gomelsky said. "My opinion, Sabonis O.K. because he is great talent. My opinion, Sabonis every game better and better. In final, Sabonis O.K." With 13 points, 13 rebounds and a constant defensive presence inside, Sabonis was ahead of schedule and the Soviets were on their way to a gold.
Soon after the game, angry callers lit up the switchboard at the offices of the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers, who expect to sign Sabonis and whose team physician, Dr. Robert Cook, helped him rehabilitate his foot during the months before the Olympics. Thompson had been critical of the Blazers. " NBA help prepare my players, thank you very much," said Gomelsky, whose team has played exhibitions against both the Atlanta Hawks, who own the rights to Marchulenis and Volkov, and the Milwaukee Bucks in the past year. But even Thompson acknowledged, "We lost the ball game. The NBA didn't."
For all the stateside talk about how the Americans would be anxious to atone for Munich and last summer's Pan Am Games loss to Brazil, no one thought to consider what the Soviets were playing for. The U.S. had won two Olympic golds since '72, but the U.S.S.R. hadn't won any. In their last major competition, the current crop of Soviet players had, with Sabonis, lost bitterly to a Robinson-led American team at the 1986 world championships in Spain.
This time it was much different, though Robinson played well with 19 points and 12 rebounds, and the Soviets moved on to play Yugoslavia in the title game, which they won 76-63. The U.S., left to play for the bronze, kookaburied Australia 78-49. "I hope the American public is sophisticated enough to credit these kids with the effort they gave," Thompson said. "I don't want anyone acting ashamed unless he didn't do all he could do."
So go ahead, America—hail your bronze medal Olympians. They did all they were told to do, and that wasn't enough. But be sure to welcome the Soviets into the NBA. There's a lot to be learned from them.