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The world amateur basketball championships otherwise known in the mellifluous chirping Spanish of Puerto Rico as Mundobasket '74, made an auspicious debut in San Juan just by starting. Then the tournament upset all forecasts by ending, and on schedule. Considering the storied preoccupation of the local citizenry with ma�ana, both occurrences were regarded as landmarks.
In between there were something like 80 or 800 or 8,000 contests among 14 teams played over a period of 12 days and the opportunity to pick up a few international impressions: that Argentineans fall down and play dead a lot; that Cubans are still surly but no longer throw chairs; that Canada is improving, Czechoslovakia degenerating and Spain is the Real Madrid. In addition the games showed that the U.S.S.R. and Yugoslavia can put on the very last all-non-black basketball match of any consequence and that Puerto Rico can mess up organizational politics and fast breaks as easily as its hotels can lose your phone calls.
Finally, that the best-kept secret in international circles is not what is on the missing tapes, but who will be the next Soviet mystery man to destroy America's credibility as hoops' top dog.
Sunday afternoon it turned out to be 25-year-old Alexandr Salnikov, who came off the bench for Russia to score 38 points and single-handedly defeat a young United States team that never knew what hit it.
The final result, a solid 105-94 victory for the U.S.S.R., was achieved with a little help from the referees who fouled out three of the U.S. big men, but it was in no way a robbery. When the championship of these games was for the taking during the last four minutes, it was the U.S.S.R., or rather Salnikov, who rose up and snatched it.
"Salnikov, my surprise trick!" said Soviet Coach Vladimir Kondrashin. And the 6'4" medical student from Kiev was certainly that to a U.S. team which figured it had settled the tournament on Saturday with a 91-88 victory over Yugoslavia.
In the round-robin competition, that triumph left Coach Gene Bartow's crew with the only undefeated record, since the Yugoslavs had previously defeated Russia 82-79. But the Americans had been coasting in preparation for the two important games at the end of the tournament. One helter-skelter affair, in which everything fell right for them, was one thing. A second straight pressure-filled contest was too much.
The time has long since passed when the U.S. can yawn through this type of competition, and the way John Lucas of Maryland, Quinn Buckner, Indiana's two-sport star, and Luther (Ticky) Burden of Utah went about their tasks in backcourt demonstrated that they and their mates were serious enough. Until Sunday the tournament belonged to Lucas, for he was the heart and soul of the American effort as well as the team's scoring leader and crowd-pleaser. Lucas and Buckner directed the attack and caused trouble on defense, and the marvelous Ticky kept entering frays from the bench to hurl in 30-footers while the red tassels on his Converse sneakers flapped in the tropical breeze. "Parade shoes," is what Lucas called Burden's footwear. "The cat's got air vents and all kinda stuff," he said. "But when I see him comin' I just ask: 'You warm, Dude?' Ticky shocks me when he misses."
"I get only 17 minutes playing time," said Burden, who favors the Billy Preston look in facial hair. "Got to throw it up while I can." While South Carolina's Tom Boswell battled the boards opposite the giant Yugoslav defending champions in the first pressure game, Ticky had to throw it up. Behind 50-41 at halftime and staggering in the face of Dragan Kicanovic's 18 points, the U.S. went to Burden and Lucas, and Burden finished with 27 points, a clear case of no Ticky, no washee.
"The U.S. team, they finally seem like fighting for country," said Yugoslav star Kresimir Cosic, as lucid as he was when he played at Brigham Young. "Always before they seem like playing for Gulf Oil or somebody."