Unless you're an out-and-out, Panama Canal-forever type jingoist, it is really heartwarming to see what a good sport the U.S. is about Olympic basketball. Every other country gets to drill its best players as a unit for three or four years. America's top 300 or so—the pros—are eliminated right off the bat, and so are many college seniors whose ten-percenters fear they might "get hurt" at the Olympics. From what is left, a committee picks the U.S. team, then gives a coach six weeks to teach this group of strangers his system. Once the Americans arrive at the Olympics, they have to play by everybody else's rules. And for a fillip in Montreal, most of the games were held in the neighborhood hockey rink, where the court was several feet short of regulation size. That diminished the Yanks' edge in speed and lessened the effectiveness of their pressure defenses.
Finally, should the U.S. lose—or even get a scare—there is a lot of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth all around the republic over how America is losing basketball superiority. If the U.S. wins, all the patriots order another beer, yawn and say that the losers could not beat Murray State in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Well, yawn, the United States won the 1976 Olympic gold medal with a 95-74 victory over Yugoslavia in the finals, and it mattered not at all that the Americans did not get a chance to "avenge"—a favorite media word—the 1972 Munich defeat by Russia, the only defeat for the U.S. in Olympic basketball history. This time the U.S. was too quick, too deep, too smart, too versatile for any of the textbook tough-guy teams from Eastern Europe. Before the finals, the Yugoslav coach, a helpful chap named Mirko Novosel, was good enough to establish a line on the game. He made the U.S. a 2-1 favorite. Novosel is also a lawyer, and he was just giving it to his clients straight.
International basketball is strangely prefigured. Certain teams have the Indian sign on others. Yugoslavia can beat Russia on every given day; it had done so five times in a row, going back to '72 Russia drew Yugoslavia in one semifinal, with the U.S. facing Canada in the other. The day before the semis. Jack Donohue, the American who coaches Canada, made some polite conversation with Vladimir Kondrashin, the Russian coach. "Hey, you and me—Canada and the Soviets—in the finals, huh?" Donohue said. The Russian coach bowed his head in despair. "Maybe you, not us," he moaned.
With such confidence at the helm, the Russian team played scared the instant it hit the court. The Yugoslavs, a sartorially fascinating bunch—no two players wear socks of the same color—pounded to a 17-4 lead, and although the Soviets rallied to make a fight of it, they wore themselves out playing elbows and earthquakes. Vladimir Tkachenko, the massive 18-year-old Russian center whose main talent is occupying a vast area close to the basket, was completely neutralized. When the Yugoslavs were on defense, they fronted him, and since it was apparent all along that Tkachenko is not the long-sought Great White Leaper, he could not get the ball, even though he stands more than seven feet tall. When the Yugoslavs were on offense, they ran him, winded him, drove at him and turned him into Silly Putty. The better Commie team won 89-84.
In the capitalistic semi, the Canadians were no match for the U.S. By then the youngest club in the tournament, masterfully coached by Dean Smith of the University of North Carolina, was in superb form. With each preliminary game, the players had worked better together, and the move from a small hall to the 16,400-seat Forum for the final two games seemed to juice up the Yanks.
The U.S. had opened with a decisive 20-point victory over the Italians, who were clever and experienced enough (they averaged almost 27 years of age) to just miss beating Yugoslavia later. Then came a fluke game against Puerto Rico that demonstrated why Red China does not want to play Taiwan. The U.S. beat its island by only a point, 95-94, but despite the score, the mainland Americans played rather well. The problem was that the Puerto Ricans shot 64%, with two-thirds of the points coming from their starting guards. One of them, Neftali Rivera, was born on one island—Puerto Rico—but learned his basketball on the playgrounds of another—Manhattan. The other was Butch Lee, a star for Marquette who lives in New York, but 19 years ago spent just enough time in Puerto Rico to be born there.
After that scare, the U.S. flattened Yugoslavia for the first time, 112-93, in a bizarre game full of senseless whistles. Yugoslavia led 55-51 at the half, but the referees settled down thereafter and the U.S. regrouped in a zone defense. The second half of this game was a watershed for the Americans. They held together under difficult circumstances, showed ingenuity and spunk and, for the first time, found Scott May of Indiana University ready to accept the burdens he had been expected to carry.
Until then May had often been tentative, and he had not adjusted to the international game as well as the other forward, Adrian Dantley of Notre Dame. And Dantley, working mostly underneath, was playing out of position. "I'm 6'5", and May's just a bit taller. We're two small forwards," Dantley said. "So one of us had to go inside. That's not my game. I'm used to being on the wing, but we've all got to sacrifice."
Once May got his bearings in the first Yugoslav game, the U.S. was never again threatened. In the final, the Americans sprang to an 8-0 lead, and with Dantley outplaying the taller Kresimir Cosic, the former Brigham Young University star, at both ends of the floor, the Yanks kept the score doubled (44-22) as late as 14 minutes into the game. The Yugoslavs made something of a run in the second half when the referees decided it would be amusing to let them play ten-pins with the Americans for a while (Dantley got a cut over his eye that required seven stitches during this divertissement), but the losers could never get closer than 10.