Before the final crunch of the weekend what Lucas wanted most in the exchange of token gifts among the competitors was a shirt from the team representing the Central African Republic whom he kept referring to, ungeographically, as "the Ivory Coast brothers."
"The Ivory Coast brothers might as well give up some shirts, they sure can't win no games," Lucas said, not exaggerating. With no man over 6'5" and limited technique, the CAR came close to victory only once, dropping an 87-86 decision to the even smaller Filipinos. More typical was CAR's 92-point loss (140-48) to the Soviets.
Other countries fared better. Canada, which is gearing up for the Montreal Olympics with " Game Plan '76," upset Czechoslovakia to gain the final round, only to lose three games there by a total of five points.
Spain had American-born Wayne Brabender (who led the tournament in scoring) from the Real Madrid Club, but its big men failed to shake the effects of diarrhea. Cuba had many of the same gentle fellows who attacked the U.S. team at the World Student Games in Moscow last summer. (This time the 83-70 U.S. victory went without incident.) And Puerto Rico had controversial Coach Armandito Torres, in addition to several NCAA players from schools such as Duquesne and Jacksonville.
Alas, to the disappointment of the 7,500 capacity crowds at Coliseo Municipal Roberto Clemente, the host team won only twice in seven attempts. Torres, an Independencia who would like freedom from the U.S. and who is not partial to the neo-Ricans (Puerto Ricans living in the U.S.) who dominate the national team, clashed abrasively with his players. He took abuse from the press and local officials, too, and then the spectators got into the act. During one game Torres was approached on the bench by an emotional onlooker who was packing a .38. The polic�a shuffled the spectator off the premises, but the coach needed a 10-man escort himself after his team lost to Brazil.
Brazil provided an excuse for dancing and conga-drum rhythms in the aisles. A Yugoslav coach kicked a ball into the box seats, an act for which he might have had his head handed to him had it not been for further police action. But the loudest ovation of the week was reserved for a transvestite who strolled the length of the floor in a black outfit with a white straw hat and an enormous oo monogrammed on his-her chest. The scene in the lobby of the Helio Isla Hotel, where the teams lived and took their meals together, was equally lively. There representatives of all languages, races and sweat-suit persuasions would congregate to watch television, play radios, hustle groupies, exchange patriotic pins and be interviewed by reporters and translators.
Attempts to talk to Soviet star Alexandr Belov, however, were to no avail since, as translator Yuri Aisvayan explained, "Before has been written things Alexandr not say." Coach Kondrashin, seemingly inured to misquotation, revealed that the absence from the U.S.S.R. team of the tall Olympic Centers Sharmuchamedow and Dvorni was due to their "experiencing severe penalties." It was rumored the problems involved customs violations wherein the players smuggled "some woolens" into the Soviet Union.
In much the same fashion Kondrashin smuggled the lean, exciting Salnikov into the contest with the U.S. It was not that Salnikov was totally unknown. He had been biding time in the tournament, averaging in double figures and having his name misspelled in press releases. Back home, he was the leading scorer for Stroitel of Kiev. Nevertheless, in San Juan he never started a game.
In the finale, however, he came bounding down the floor shooting his rockets on the dead run, and nobody could stop him. Salnikov scored 20 points in the first half as the U.S. kept pace for a 55-55 tie. Then he hit a layup off the opening tap of the second half, and Russia never looked back.
The Soviets moved to a five-point lead, 77-72, and when the U.S. kept grinding away, Salnikov was always there to score a basket or control a rebound. He led the game with 10 of those. Twice Virginia's Gus Gerard brought the Yankee side to within one point, but both times Salnikov scored from the corner for breathing room. Then, one by one the American big men exited on fouls—Rich Kelley of Stanford, Joe Meriweather of Southern Illinois and finally Tom Boswell. Only Lucas and Burden remained to make their valiant attempts.