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Frank Deford
August 09, 1976
The sobersided, untested U.S. basketball team was too quick, too clever and, simply, too much for the Yugoslavs or any other men's squad
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August 09, 1976

Twelve Quiet Men On A Rampage

The sobersided, untested U.S. basketball team was too quick, too clever and, simply, too much for the Yugoslavs or any other men's squad

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Dantley and May were the offensive stalwarts throughout, but Phil Ford, the North Carolina guard, was perhaps the indispensable, one-of-a-kind player on the team. No European could cope with his remarkable quickness, with or without the ball. Quinn Buckner, the team captain, also from Indiana, exhibited his usual superior floor game and his typically unpredictable shooting. The centers—Mitch Kupchak and Tom LaGarde, two others from Smith's North Carolina team—were considered America's weakest link going in, and though they performed adequately, they could never lift the team and carry it the way other starters sometimes did. Phil Hubbard of the University of Michigan, Kenny Carr of North Carolina State and Ernie Grunfeld of the University of Tennessee were the best off the bench.

In terms of both temperament and style, it was a homogeneous crew. You could not ask for a nicer and duller collection of young men. Smith acknowledged that in selecting the players considerable weight was given to their personalities. At the trials they were asked to do various nuisance things—run, for example, not walk, to the water fountain whenever Smith said it was time to get a drink—to find out who were the gripers and who were the good scouts. By the time the squad reached Montreal, the team was one, the team was everything. The Americans often went one-on-one—indeed, this is what set the U.S. apart from the stylized European units—but it was heretical even to whisper of such individual transgressions. Would Dantley comment on his magnificent 30-point effort in the finals? No, he said, he just thought about the team. Would Ford talk about his quickness? Well, he replied, quickness is nice to have if you have a great team around you. If the Americans had been some Eastern European team, U.S. observers would have mocked those Commies, all thinking the same and spouting a party line.

Obviously, wooden Indians are the right sort of fellows to bring together for this task. The Americans' poise was memorable. They refused to panic or to get down to the gutter level of some of the other teams. In fact, it seems that the one advantage the U.S. has is that the other teams play according to the rough-and-tumble international rules. The Americans must adapt for a couple of weeks every four years, but in between they play their own game and refine its subtleties. The others must spend so much time defending themselves, playing a game that revolves around fouls, that their natural progress is impeded.

Of course, the U.S. will have one major disadvantage in 1980, because Russia will have the homecourt advantage. This may not be enough to stop the U.S. men but should make it all but impossible for the U.S. women to challenge the Soviets. Women's basketball was included in the Olympics at Montreal for the first time, and the Russians, who have not lost a tournament game since 1968, were so much better than any of the other five entries that it might have been best if the women's play had been stopped out of mercy, the way boxing matches are.

The main attraction in the competition was 281-pound Iuliana Semenova, who is listed at 6'11" but is clearly much taller. A lefty who wears sporty red-white-and-blue wristbands, Semenova is ponderous, to be sure, but she is not without a nice touch and she works diligently at all times. To her friends, she is Lasta, a warm diminutive, and she is known as a dear and happy person. She did not march in the opening parade, lest she call attention to her height, but she was often seen in the Olympic Village, striding about with her smaller teammates.

It was no pleasure to watch Lasta on the court, because many cruel people booed and taunted her efforts. It was best when the Russians got way ahead (which seldom took long), so that she could sit on the bench unmolested, then get back to her books and music when the game was over. By contrast, the Soviets' second-leading scorer, a 5'9" guard named Tatjana Ovetchkina, deserved calumny; she was quite possibly the dirtiest performer in the Games regardless of age, sex, race or national origin.

U.S. Coach Billie Jean Moore's women lost their first game to Japan, took the obligatory beating from Russia (112-77), but refused to fold. They won the silver medal and a great deal of prime-time shilling from ABC; it was as if the network was getting ready to replace Charlie's Angels with a women's basketball league next January. Julienne Simpson steered the team, Lucy Harris, the 6'3" center from Delta State, was the Americans' high scorer (15.2 points per game) and three other U.S. players—Nancy Dunkle, Patricia Roberts and Ann Meyers—were also among the Olympic scoring leaders.

The women thus have a fine nucleus for a continuing national team—wait until 1984—while the men go on to the pros. Dean Smith says he will not return, either, but his role this time was crucial. In the past, men like John Wooden did not want the job of Olympic coach because of the political hassling. Smith's predecessor, Henry Iba, past his coaching prime, tried to force an antique style upon his young charges. Smith took the job even though he knew he could not select his own team. But if, as seems likely, that rule is changed, Smith will have started a pattern whereby a leading coach will be honored with the job each Olympiad. "They change the players every time," Smith says. "They might as well change the coach, too.

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