Wednesday, January 12, 2011

National Pride


There always seems to be a sense of entitlement when it comes to the United States and international basketball tournaments. Even with foreign players among the best in the world, there exists some irrational distress when the Americans don't obliterate the competition.

The shock of the U.S.'s loss to the Soviet Union in the 1972 Olympics has yet to dissipate. The American players have famously never accepted their silver medals.

The controversy of that defeat, when the Soviets were given multiple chances at the winning shot, in Munich is justified. Four years later in Montreal, the U.S. was on the other side of a narrow result in the Olympics. The record shows the Americans winning, 95-94, over Puerto Rico. It is forgotten how close the U.S. came to another shocking loss.

Butch Lee wanted to play for the U.S. But Lee wasn't granted an invitation to the Olympic trials by coach Dean Smith, even though Marquette teammates Earl Tatum, Lloyd Walton and Bo Ellis were.

Lee was born in Puerto Rico. His family decamped shortly thereafter for New York City, where Lee became a hoops legend at the Bronx's DeWitt Clinton High School. Still, he was eligible to play for the Puerto Rican national team.

Puerto Rico coach Tom Nissalke, a longtime ABA and NBA fixture, certainly must have been glad to have Lee.

The Puerto Ricans opened with a 21-point loss to the Yugoslavians, which didn't bode well for the match-up with the Americans. Smith's roster boasted Phil Ford, Adrian Dantley, Mitch Kupchak, Ernie Grunfeld, Scott May and Quinn Buckner.

Lee came out to prove that he belonged on the world stage. Guarded mostly by Indiana star Buckner, Lee finished with 35 points on 15-for-18 shooting and 5 for 6 from the free-throw line. Eight of Lee's baskets gave Puerto Rico leads as the game was tight throughout. Lee's backcourt mate Neftali Rivera added 26 points. They combined for 36 points in the first half as the game was tied at 50 at the break.

Rivera's biggest points came with just over one minute remaining as he hit a jumper to give Puerto Rico a 92-91 lead. Dantley gave the lead back to the Americans on a tip-in with 22 seconds left.

Then came the controversy. Nissalke drew up a play to clear room for one of Lee's patented mid-range jumpers. There was contact in the lane as Lee rose up for an eight-footer. The whistle blew. Everyone held their breath to see which way the age-old, block-charge conundrum would go.

It was a charge on Lee. The Puerto Rican bench howled with incredulity.

Ford hit two free throws. The Puerto Ricans hit a meaningless shot at the buzzer for the final margin. The chances of a monumental upset were gone.

The loss to the Soviets four years earlier could at least be explained away, with the opposition having placed high emphasis on beating the Americans and the finish that reeked of conspiracy. A loss to tiny Puerto Rico would have been inconceivable, no matter how good Lee was.

Lee would get a measure of revenge against Smith in 1977, scoring 19 points as Marquette beat North Carolina in the NCAA championship game.

Lee played two seasons for four teams in the NBA, averaging 8.1 points and 3.2 assists per game. He had a long career as a player and coach in the Baloncesto Superior Nacional, Puerto Rico's professional league.

Despite that missed opportunity in 1976, Lee undoubtedly cracked a smile in 2004, when Puerto Rico shocked the U.S., 92-73, at the Athens Olympics.

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