The U.S. Olympic basketball selection committee hoisted a red, white and Carolina blue banner over its squad for the Montreal Games last week. It did not choose the best team possible because professionals were not eligible and a large number of professionals-in-waiting were not willing. But it probably did pick the best team available. Certainly it was the best available from the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Although the ACC's final representation may be reduced when the last three cuts are made, seven members of the present 15-player squad are from the ACC, including four from North Carolina. The Trials were held on the campus of North Carolina State, and the squad will be coached by Dean Smith of North Carolina. If the U.S. team fails to recover the gold medal it lost for the first time in 1972, lack of familiarity will hardly be a reason.
Approximately 50 candidates were measured, weighed, timed and considered. It was difficult to make an exact count because sickness, injury and some faintheartedness changed the number throughout the six days of the Trials. Among those who went home early was Louisville high school star Darrell Griffith; before he left, though, Griffith demonstrated why he was rated the highest leaper in camp by slam-dunking over the man with the longest reach, Clemson's 7'1" Wayne (Tree) Rollins.
Other players attracted attention by not attending the Trials at all, notably tall rebounders like 6'10" Leon Douglas of Alabama, 7'1" Robert Parish of Centenary and 6'10�" Richard Washington of UCLA. They apparently stayed away at the suggestion of agents or pro teams, fearing that an injury or a poor performance would hurt their bargaining position with the pros. To complicate matters, 6'10" Center Kent Benson of Indiana, probably the best of the tall ones, was absent because of recent surgery on his wrist.
General Manager Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics took one look at the big men who showed and said, "This team is weak down the middle. Smith's got his work cut out for him." Kevin Loughery, coach of the ABA champion New York Nets, decried the same shortage. "Some guys go to war for their country and these guys won't even play bleeping basketball for it," he said angrily.
Actually, Douglas tried to join the Trials after they began by having his coach, C. M. Newton, call Smith. Smith mulled the request for a day but refused to accept Douglas, saying it would be unfair to the players who had been participating in the twice daily three-hour sessions.
The only quality big man in Raleigh was Smith's own 6'10" Mitch Kupchak, who suffered from a swollen elbow that hampered his performance. Like most of the players on hand, Kupchak refused to criticize those who put their pocketbooks ahead of national pride. "If an agent had told me I could lose $300,000 by coming here, I wouldn't be here either," he said. "I just don't have an agent yet."
As in 1968 and 1972, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) and Bill Walton of UCLA stayed away, absenteeism permitted some previously unrecognized big men to display their talents. Kupchak's 6'10" North Carolina teammate, Tommy LaGarde, who has considerable international experience, and 6'10" Scott Lloyd of Arizona State, whose aggressive push-and-shove style is perfectly suited to the international game, both showed well and were named to the team with Kupchak.
Although Smith had only one of the 10 selection-committee votes, he advised the selectors about the qualities he wanted. With the big men, Smith was more concerned with shot blocking and rebounding than scoring; Kupchak, LaGarde and Lloyd all averaged fewer than 18 points a game last season. Smith also emphasized consistency, unselfishness and defense. "There isn't a man here who can't play offense," Smith said, "but that isn't what's going to win the gold medal for us."
Those who did not get Smith's message failed to make the team. Among the failures were Forward Wesley Cox of Louisville, who accomplished little at either end of the court, and Guard Rickey Green of Michigan, who made the mistake of shooting 27 times in his final scrimmage. A not-so-surprising casualty was Marshall Rogers of Pan American. Rogers came to camp with a basketball-sized monogram on the back of his jacket that advertised him as the national scoring champion. Privately, Rogers claimed to be a "pretty good defensive player," adding "I be trying to stay with my man everywhere he goes." But his man often went this away on the court and Rogers eventually went that away back home.