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Signs waved and a band played to mark their arrival at an airport near Iowa City. Girl Scouts handed out American flags to the throng of 67,596 who cheered them on in Indianapolis. The obligatory chant "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" erupted at the end of the game in Greensboro, N.C.
Surely the red, white and blue receptions accorded the U.S. Olympic basketball team last week sent chills up and down the spines of the young men chosen to represent their country in Los Angeles. But more significant to their potential success in the Games have been the Olympians' reactions upon being hacked, mauled, whomped and unceremoniously dumped on by a ragtag collection of NBA "all-star" teams. (Danny Schayes an all-star?) What our boys have done, brave fighting men that they've turned into—War is hell. Remember the Maine! Remember Corregidor! Remember Aleksandr Belov!—is to jump up from the floor, laugh off the wounds and, employing the defensive strangleholds taught by their coach, Bobby Knight, climb back into the faces and jockstraps of the opposition. And win.
After the Olympians had beaten the NBA vacationers five straight times to the embarrassing tune of 65 points in toto, the series came to an ugly head in Milwaukee last Friday night. The pros pushed, elbowed, hand-checked and cheap-shot the daylights out of their younger rivals, with Mickey Johnson of the Golden State Warriors being the head mugger: He committed what is believed to be a North American record of 13 fouls. (The rules used on the tour permit unlimited fouling.)
Early on, Johnson banged into the Olympians' Wayman Tisdale, whose momentum undercut teammate Chris Mullin and sent them both sprawling to the floor in a scary heap. Later Alvin Robertson was slapped in the face, and both Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan were provoked into near fights. Welcome to the NBA? This was more like the Temple of Doom. Physical testing of his team was exactly what Indiana Bobby had asked for, but the preposterously loose officiating by college refs Charley Vacca and John Dabrow caused the intensity to approach a dangerous level. So the Olympic coach unloaded a tirade at the officials. "Too much is at stake!" he screamed.
Knight had encouraged the pros to challenge his team. Keep pounding us, keep knocking us around, he told NBA guards Mike Dunleavy and Doc Rivers. But early in the second half, after Vern Fleming was called for an offensive foul, an infuriated Knight ordered Jordan to throw him the ball. When Knight refused to hand it over to the referees, Vacca hit him with a technical. Finally, Knight relented and gave him the ball, but he raged on, spewing profane invective that could be heard many rows up in the Mecca. Knight then swiped at the ball, which Dabrow was cradling in front of him, and he hit it. (In a formal press conference later the coach labeled Vacca "the most incompetent sonofabitch I've ever seen referee.")
A moment later, with Knight's bellowing unabated, assistant coach Don Donoher (of Dayton) grabbed Knight and pushed him away. Then the Olympic team manager, CM. Newton, who in civilian life is the Vanderbilt coach, shouted at Knight. The head coach cooled down.
"What do you want me to do, sit on my ass and let a million-dollar player's career be ruined by some a——-e with a whistle?" Knight roared following the Olympians' 94-78 victory. "Don't be ridiculous! We were tested tonight—by the poorest officiating in the world."
In the Olympians' seven-game winning streak—the team opened the exhibition schedule with a 124-89 rout of the Indiana alumni at Bloomington—they averaged 103.6 points a game. The team may be shooting 49.5% from the floor overall, but slumps by Jordan and Steve Alford have made that number a trifle deceiving. "We're a 55 percent shooting team," Knight says. On the other hand, the Olympians' quickness, offensive rebounding, versatility and especially their hounding, frenetic man-to-man defense make the gold medal a near lock. Antonio Diaz-Miguel, the coach of the Spanish team, fast-break aficionados who are training in Chapel Hill, N.C., says the U.S. will win easily. With the Soviet bloc boycott, only Italy and Yugoslavia are near America's class and here's one bet that neither—nor Spain, whose break Knight's defense will be delighted to break down—will come within single figures of the home team.
At the Olympics, Knight's biggest danger may be his own volatile temper. If the Milwaukee incident had occurred in L.A., Knight would have been thrown out of the game at least twice, and, depending on the largess of the foreign referees, Ewing and Jordan might have joined him. Knight's hyperbole aside, those notorious gentlemen make the lamentable Vacca and Dabrow look like veritable Kissingers, and some of them don't even speak or understand English, which, come to think of it, might be an advantage for Knight.
"I'm gonna argue like hell, just not as vehemently in L.A.," Knight said. "I wouldn't last too long if I did."