Friday, August 19, 2011

Back Against The USSR

Anyone associated with USA Basketball has decried the 51-50 loss to the Soviet Union at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. However, the international outrage over the ending to that game has clouded what might be the most impressive two-game winning streak in Olympic basketball history.

The rematch between the Soviets and Americans took 16 years to happen. The teams were in different Olympic brackets in 1976, and boycotts by each country took away any chance at match-ups in ’80 and ’84.

The game finally came to fruition during the semifinals of the medal round in the Seoul Olympics of 1988. This time, the Soviets didn’t leave the final score open to debate with an 82-76 victory over the John Thompson-coached Americans.

As always, an American loss in the Olympics caused outrage and finger pointing. But it really shouldn’t have been that shocking.

The Soviets were a veteran team with an average age of 28. They had top-shelf talent with Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis, before either player had landed in the NBA. Most important, the Soviet Union had played together for several years.

The Americans had a potent starting lineup of Dan Majerle, Danny Manning, David Robinson, Mitch Richmond and Georgetown point guard Charles Smith. But they were all still college-aged and had come together as a team only a few months before.

The advantages didn’t stop with the players. Thompson was thoroughly outcoached by Soviet mastermind Aleksandr Gomelsky. The Russian is legendary in basketball circles and was enshrined in the Hall of Fame after coaching the national team for over 30 years. Gomelsky hadn’t experienced the victory 16 years earlier in Munich, however. The Soviet regime thought the Jewish Gomelsky might defect, so his passport was revoked.

This game in 1988 was the biggest Gomelsky would ever coach. Marciulionis told the New York Times that the coach imparted to every Soviet player that “the American players are emotional, but also very fragile. We must try to stop their fast break, but at all cost not let them finish it with a dunk. Because when they start dunking they play as if they have wings instead of arms.”

Manning picked up two fouls in the first 2:14 and was promptly yanked by Thompson. Fresh off his “Danny and the Miracles” thrill ride to the NCAA championship with Kansas, Manning was supposed to be the focal point of the U.S. offense. But Thompson sat Manning the rest of the first half and the forward never got into the flow, finishing without a point.

Gomelsky, on the other hand, didn’t seem to mind when Marciulionis and Sabonis got into foul trouble, leaving them on the floor even when Marciulionis picked up his fourth foul in the first half.

Sabonis, the newly minted Hall of Famer, had already suffered leg injuries by this point in his career. He has often said that Soviet apparatchiks forced him to play in 1988 despite a painful Achilles’ injury. Sabonis had the toughest matchup with Robinson, who was often the U.S. foil to the Soviet center during their amateur match-ups. Sabonis more than held his own with 13 points and 13 rebounds.

Marciulionis was key in the first half, scoring 11 points despite those four fouls. He finished with 19 points and was 3 for 3 on three-pointers.

The shooting from behind the arc was the key to victory, as NBC commentator Al McGuire figured it would be in his pre-game monologue. The American defenders sagged into Sabonis, but the center’s superior passing vision found open shooters.

Rimas Kourtinaitas was the biggest beneficiary. He scored a game-high 28 points and was 4 for 10 on three-pointers.

The Americans shot a combined 4 for 7 on threes. Thompson probably wished he hadn’t cut Steve Kerr or Rex Chapman during the U.S. trials.

A late rally led by Majerle and Smith wasn’t enough. The U.S. settled for bronze and the Soviet Union went on to win the gold-medal game against Yugoslavia.

The loss prompted USA Basketball officials to allow NBA players to compete in the Olympics, precipitating the formation of the Dream Team.

Even Gomelsky, with a gold medal already in hand, was OK with the changes, saying that the only way for the rest of the world to catch up with U.S. was to play against the best.

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