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Original Issue

They're closing the hoop gap

The U.S. was golden in Caracas, but it wasn't blowing opponents away

Professor Edward (E-Z Ed) Pinckney was holding forth on the Spanish language one day last week during his sabbatical as a forward for the U.S. basketball team at the Pan Am Games. Pinckney has studied Spanish at Villanova, and it's the lingua franca in his neighborhood in the Bronx. But he had picked up a curious new phrase in Caracas: Muerete que ciao.

"You say it when you leave someone, the way we say 'Break a leg,' " Pinckney explained. "You mean 'Take care,' but it literally means 'Drop dead.' "

The crowds at the Poliedro in Caracas seemed to be echoing that very ambivalence during the fortnight of competition. As the U.S. went 8-0 to win its eighth gold medal in nine Pan Ams, Caraqueños were by turns hostile and appreciative. Each time the Americans took the floor, they were met with hoots and whistles. Yet when marvelous Michael Jordan would soar and swoop, scoop and score, there'd be gasps and applause. The U.S. clearly still plays the most elegant basketball in the hemisphere.

Problem was, the first few times out the Pan Am team showed no evidence of playing the smartest. Down 20-4 in its opener, unable to defense Mexico's deft screening and cutting with a man-to-man, the U.S. had to go to a zone to pull out a 74-63 victory. In their second outing, against Brazil, the Americans trailed by 10 midway through the second half. Pinckney made a steal with the score tied 69-69 and 1:04 to go, and in the final minute the U.S. used a zone again, thwarted three Brazilian shots and won 72-69. Jordan scored 19 of the team's last 27 points.

The Pan Am team—with Jordan and Sam Perkins of North Carolina, Oklahoma's Wayman Tisdale, Kentucky's Jim Master, Georgia Tech's Mark Price, Cal State-Fullerton's Leon Wood and Villanova's Pinckney—is, in all likelihood, the nucleus of the club Bobby Knight will coach in the '84 Olympics. Its slow start prompted claims that the U.S. had sent second-stringers to Caracas, as it had to the World University Games in July, where the Americans lost the gold-medal game to host Canada. But the only players who could have improved this team were Chris Mullin of St. John's, who was with the club until he hurt his foot during an exhibition in Puerto Rico, and Georgetown's Pat Ewing, who was stateside taking a summer school class—in Spanish, of all things.

In Caracas, the U.S. players were obviously not prepared—mentally, anyway—for the surprisingly strong basketball displayed by their opponents. In fact, international basketball no longer is a Yankee monopoly. Olympic Assistant Coach George Raveling, who in the last year has traveled to the world championships in Colombia, the European championships in France and the World University Games to prepare a dossier for Knight says, "It's the result of what we've done the past 15 years, going abroad, sharing our philosophy and staging clinics. Other teams aren't as sterile as they used to be. They play with imagination and use extended-court defenses. And there's the experience factor. These teams stay together for a long time." Adds Tom McGrath, associate director of ABAUSA, the American governing body: "In international play, all that matters is your top 12 people. For sheer numbers of good players, no one comes close to us. But here, how good your 13th is doesn't matter."

After the U.S. sloughed past Venezuela 78-65, U.S. Coach Jack Hartman, who has a 251-125 record in 13 seasons at Kansas State, bristled when a reporter pointed out that his team had gone three games without a blowout. "That day's over," he said, his face reddening. "People gotta learn."

"I'm amazed by the patience and the smarts of the point guards [I've played against]," said the 6'3" Wood, himself a piloto so deft that Hartman chose him even though he'd missed the trials because of a foot injury. "I thought international ball would be like a Chinese fire drill, 100-something to 100-something. I became adjusted real quick."

The U.S. team had to make other adjustments, including moving from the still-unfinished Pan Am athletes' compound to a downtown hotel and coping with odd events on the court. The most bizarre of these took place while the U.S. was beating Canada 111-97. By the time the officials whistled their 63rd and final foul, the following had occurred: The horn had gone off inexplicably, a basket had been disallowed for no apparent reason, fouls had been charged to the wrong players and points had been credited to the wrong team. Once, Hartman and his Canadian counterpart, Jack Donohue, even found themselves pleading the identical issue to uncomprehending officials, timers and scorekeepers. "These officials just don't know the rules," said Dr. Edward Steitz, an American member of FIBA's international rules committee.

Canada and Brazil turned out to be the U.S.'s two toughest opponents. Donohue has been the Canadian coach since 1972, and the game his team plays is strict, patterned CYO. The Canadians have pledged to remain together through '84. By contrast the Brazilians, who won the silver, aren't as methodical, but they're wiser and surer shooters. "You have to agree that Americans have better personnel," said Brazil Coach Renato Cunha after the U.S. clinched the gold with an 87-79 victory over his team. "Give me any two of their players, I beat them. Give me only Number 14, I beat them."

Number 14 was the 6'9" Tisdale, who scored most of the Americans' inside points, including 29 against Canada, and spent much of the week keeping teammates loose with lines like, "I always thought a bolivar was a watch."

Meanwhile, Knight, Hartman's predecessor, was conspicuous by his absence. Few athletes or spectators in Caracas had forgotten that Knight had been charged with assaulting a policeman during the '79 games in San Juan and was eventually tried in absentia and sentenced to six months in jail. "Bobby doesn't go south of Atlanta," said Hartman.

As it turned out, Saturday's U.S.-Puerto Rico game was pro forma because the U.S. had already clinched the gold, and though it was fiercely played, it was not nearly the grudge match it had been in '79. Then the game was for the gold, and after the U.S. won, Knight celebrated by pumping his fists into the air and cursing the crowd. This time the Americans met the Puerto Ricans as though they were old friends. "I played against a lot of those guys on the playgrounds in Brooklyn," said Perkins after the 101-85 victory. "I'd wondered what happened to them."

"There is a friendship between the two teams," said Puerto Rico Coach Flor Melendez. "The problem in 1979 is in 1979. It is now 1983." In 1984, back comes Knight, with not just the Americas but the world to conquer on the court.


Tisdale was on the loose inside as his team downed Argentina 88-68.