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While the Kafkaesque series of rulings that ended that game surely won't happen again, least of all in L.A., observers other than Little Big Dan think the U.S. could be headed for a fall anyway. "This American team will be the weakest of all time," says Aldo Giordani, editor-in-chief of Italy's weekly Super Basket. He ticks off the names—Sam Bowie, Melvin Turpin, Keith Lee—of the big men who didn't even show for the trials. "It will be weaker even than the '72 team [Doug Collins, Tom McMillen, Tommy Burleson, et ah], which was very strong on defense, but weak on offense. American talent is the best in the world. But their players are 20 years old against men who've played 80 games each year for 10 years. The U.S. player has taken maybe 5,000 shots in games in his life. The others have taken maybe 50,000."
The U.S. does make it hard on itself, playing under different rules and with different officials than the rest of the world and only rarely meeting the national teams they oppose in each Olympics. Knight's idea for a preparatory exhibition tour of nine games, seven of them against teams of NBA veterans, was a good one. But the tour wasn't the same as playing in the intense, eight-and 12-team tournaments—with refs sanctioned by FIBA—that international teams routinely enter.
"When you play nine games in 13 days in the Olympic environment, you're always going to get upsets," says David Turner, a FIBA official. "The biggest problem the U.S. team will face is the absence of experience, given the intensity and what's at stake in front of a home crowd."
Still, most everyone considers the U.S. the favorite. "Sin ninguna duda," says Diaz-Miguel. "Without any doubt. I don't think the American team will lose any games." Adds Novosel, "They're the best in the world and they're playing at home. I don't think we have a chance." And Enrico Campana of Italy's La Gazzetta dello Sport says, "We don't have any chance because the Americans have a coach like Bobby Knight."
But if it is the favorite, the U.S. isn't a prohibitive one. It could lose. Some worst-case scenarios:
•On three straight possessions in the final moments of the gold medal game with Italy, Jordan, on clear-outs, begins his pet rocker-step move on the wing. Three straight times he's called for traveling by the same official, and the Americans fritter away a small lead. The ref, a squat veteran of five Olympics, in his life has seen only one living thing move as quickly as Jordan: A certain insect indigenous to the Southeast Asian province he calls home. And, the ref figures, since Jordan is human, he must be moving his pivot foot too soon. Point is, FIBA refs don't give the benefit of the doubt to a player beginning his drive the way NCAA refs do. Since it took all of Jordan's freshman season at North Carolina for ACC officials to concede legality to his rocker-step, there's no reason to expect that Olympic refs will do so in 13 days.
•The U.S. team, so accustomed to working in a predominantly man-to-man environment during Knight's practice camps and the NBA exhibitions, sees nothing but zone in the Olympic tournament, including this fateful day, in an early game against Spain. Mullin is sent in to hoist shots from the wing, but Diaz-Miguel uses a trap for much of the second half and Mullin rarely sees the ball. And when he does, he rushes his shots and is ineffective. Then, even when the Spaniards drop back into a straight zone, he can't hit. Remember St. John's NCAA East first-round loss to Temple last March? Mullin, a .904 free-throw shooter, missed the front end of a one-and-one with :08 left. He's a great shooter—but not impervious to pressure.
•For years Yugoslavia had a feisty guard named Dragan Kicanovic who, in a particularly rough 1983 European championship game, walked over to Italy's Renato Villalta and kicked him in the groin. Kicanovic has retired, but his kind of combative spirit, if not occasional madness, is still with the '84 Yugoslav team. Early in its game with the U.S., 6'10", 235-pound center Rajko Zizic nestles a routine elbow in Ewing's solar plexus. Ewing, one of the few Georgetown students not majoring in diplomacy, reciprocates. The officials banish both players, to the U.S.'s greater detriment. The Yugoslavs dart through what's left of the American defense and simply outscore the U.S. the rest of the way.
•Gamba and Diaz-Miguel are reverent disciples and friends of Knight. In that way, they're not much different from scores of American coaches, with whom Knight has never minded sharing his basketball theories. Knight is so open because he believes execution, not newfangled strategy, ultimately wins games. Fine. But on this day Spain is surprised by nothing the Americans do, and the Spaniards execute better. They shoot better, stay out of foul trouble better and make fewer turnovers. Knight's response: patience. Now, Knight could never rival Hank Iba, who was the U.S. coach in Munich, as a devotee of ball control—but, like Iba, he's loath to let talent run free, lest it run amok. But sometimes you've got to take that risk.
•In assembling his team, Knight decided to keep slow, bruising frontcourt reserves like Joe Kleine, Jon Koncak, Tim McCormick and Jeff Turner on his roster of regulars and alternates because he figured he'd have to pound with Italy and the Soviet Union. But now he's up against the nimbleness and guile of the Yugoslavs, who pull off an upset of the foul-plagued U.S. The postmortems gibe the U.S. for being out-quicked. Where was Charles Barkley, just one of several players who could have provided a little boogie with his beef? Watching the sad affair in a Leeds, Ala. pizzeria.