SI Vault
Edited by Steve Wulf
August 26, 1991
No Cigar USA Basketball did not play well at the Pan Am Games, either on or off the court
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August 26, 1991


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No Cigar
USA Basketball did not play well at the Pan Am Games, either on or off the court

Was there anything this team needed? When asked that question after the U.S. women had to settle for the bronze medal at the Pan Am Games (page 26) last week, USA Basketball executive director Bill Wall said, "Yeah, a new coach." So reported Dick Patrick of USA Today and Randy Riggs of the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman, who spoke with Wall shortly after coach Vivian Stringer's team defeated Canada for third place. A day earlier, the U.S. team's hopes for gold had ended with an 86-81 loss to Cuba in the semifinals.

According to Patrick and Riggs, Wall tried to go off the record with the comment after he had made it. According to Wall, his remark was misunderstood. All three agree that Wall elaborated on the comment, making the point that because the nucleus of the American side at the Pan Am Games had played for coach Theresa Grentz at last summer's Goodwill Games and world championships (Grentz will also coach the 1992 U.S. Olympic team), the players were more familiar with her system than with Stringer's. Still, the original comment demeaned the unpaid and considerable efforts of Stringer, who coaches Iowa and has twice been national women's college Coach of the Year. Wall formally apologized, and USA Basketball president Dave Gavitt issued this withering statement: "Mr. Wall's comments, whether reported out of context or not, were inappropriate and inexcusable."

Wall says what he thinks, and there is virtue in that. But a position like his—as close to a diplomatic posting as exists in his sport—requires more circumspect behavior. "It's my job to take the heat," Wall likes to say. He said it in 1988, when USA Basketball banned the press from the U.S. Olympic trials—but let in agents and shoe salesmen. He said the same thing during these Pan Am Games, when the U.S. men's team shuttled between Havana and a luxury hotel in Miami, creating a controversy (SI, Aug. 19) that was scarcely eased when the pampered Americans were beaten by Puerto Rico 73-68 in Thursday's semifinals. Maybe they had jet lag.

But Puerto Rico was hardly a pushover. Most of the players are in their late 20's and seasoned twice over, in Spain's pro league during the winter and then in Puerto Rico's tough summer league, in which the teams have nicknames like Los Cariduros (the Hard Faces) and Los Brujos (the Warlocks) and play accordingly. The U.S. couldn't contain Puerto Rico's veteran front line, which consisted of former Alabama-Birmingham star Jerome Mincy and two former NBA players, José Ortiz and Ramón Rivas. "We should beat this team," said Puerto Rico coach Raymond Dalmau after the game.

"We have two guys who have been in the NBA, and if they can't dominate college kids inside, they're not as good as I think they are."

Dalmau indicated that another Wall remark motivated his players. In explaining why the Americans chose to stay in hot tub-equipped hotel rooms Stateside instead of in the athletes' village, Wall had said, "Every one of these kids is going to be a multimillionaire in two years." Said Dalmau, "Yes, my players got upset. A guy like Rivas, he was making the minimum salary with the Boston Celtics."

In the future, the men's basketball competition at the Pan Am Games will probably be limited to players aged 22 and under. With that restriction, says Purdue's Gene Keady, who coached this year's Pan Am team, "I don't think anyone can beat us. But I can say that. I won't be coaching."

Wall, on the other hand, will stay on to answer questions about what USA Basketball needs. Some people might be tempted to answer, "A new executive director."

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