Does this sound like Star Wars stuff? Think another Munich-type upset is more likely to occur than any of the above? Maybe. Or maybe there'll be another Puerto Rico. No, not Knight, in a variation of his 1979 run-in with a San Juan policeman at the Pan Am Games, losing his cool in L.A. and laying out a referee for upbraiding him in Spanish, but a replay of the '76 Olympics. That year Puerto Rico, led by then Houston Rockets coach Tom Nissalke, came within a point of upsetting the U.S. in an early-round game. The game was played on the Americans' terms, a 95-94, up-and-down affair. That Puerto Rican squad was more than a ragtag bunch of islanders, with a ringer guard—Puerto Rican-born, Bronx-bred, Marquette-schooled Butch Lee. It was a team that could play the American game almost as well as the mainlanders on that day.
This summer's Puerto Rico could be any one of a number of teams. (Fortunately for Knight, it can't be the puertorriqueños themselves, who didn't qualify for L.A.; surely that team would have been his most jacked-up opponent.) "If the U.S. doesn't come away with the gold medal, it'll be because they're victims of their own circumstances," says FIBA's Turner. Before 1972, the U.S. could win the gold by throwing together almost any kind of team. No longer. "To maintain international supremacy today," says Turner, "you must constantly expose yourself to that environment and field the best players available." The U.S. does neither.
At least there's no chance that any team will take the Americans by surprise. Stateside Cassandras like Al McGuire have been warning for years of the shrinking international basketball gap. Knight himself saw the Italians' impressive European title victory in France last year, and quickly pronounced them more formidable than the Soviets. Knight has dispatched assistants to scout teams in both hemispheres. And he intends to make his players well aware of the dates and scores of every American loss in international play. It can happen, because it has happened...but we won't let it happen. That sort of thinking.
Which brings to mind one intangible advantage the U.S. has over its rivals. The best national teams are, essentially, professional: older, more mellow, perhaps even a bit jaded. Gamba recognizes this, and a while back he halfheartedly proposed that no Italian player be permitted to play for his country in more than one Olympics. That way players would always come to him hungry.
The U.S. doesn't have to contrive that attitude. "You only get one chance to play for the gold medal, to play for your country," says Scott May, a gold medal winner on the '76 team, now playing in Italy after a foreshortened NBA career. The best American college players are grateful for that chance; for one thing, it's their only opportunity to play together before going their separate ways to seek pro fortunes. They generate an enthusiasm, an authentic Olympic spirit.
"You know when the U.S. beat Yugoslavia [in the gold medal game] in 1976?" Little Big Dan says. "It was during the introductions, when Phil Ford and Quinn Buckner came out and went powpowpowpow! with the fives."
Want that gold medal, America? Show some D. Flash the post. Deal some licks. But show some spirit, flash the pearly whites and deal a little skin, too.