"For me," says Spain's coach, Antonio Diaz-Miguel, "the most important thing in basketball is speed." There's a little bit of irony in that statement, coming as it does from a man who collects miniature elephants. But speed is Spain's byword. As another European coach says, "Diaz-Miguel must study Denver Nugget movies in his spare time." Indeed, the Spaniards have used a nonstop style like Denver's to race to the top of international basketball.
In 1976 Spain didn't even qualify for the Olympics. In 1978 its junior team—several members of which are now oh the national team—placed second at the European championships. In the Moscow Olympics Spain finished fourth, behind Yugoslavia, Italy and the U.S.S.R. On the way to its second-place showing at last year's European championships, Spain beat the Soviets for the fourth time in three years. "They bother the Russians a lot," says Victor de la Serna, a Madrid journalist. "Spain has much more quickness, and it offsets its height disadvantage with the fast break, pressure defense and by preventing the ball from going inside."
In short, Spain is Europe's finesse team, one that prides itself on using la cabeza, the head. It draws its players almost entirely from three club teams, so they know each other's styles unusually well. Meanwhile, since Diaz-Miguel's wife died of cancer four years ago, he has worked almost full time cooking up new tactics (the Spaniards' 1-3-1 and man-to-man half-court traps are new this year) and motivational devices (players can earn up to 1,000 pesetas, about $8, per steal in scrimmages). He frequently bops over to the States to pick up the latest pearls of wisdom from Bobby Knight, Dean Smith and Lou Carnesecca.
If Diaz-Miguel has succeeded in creating a team by the force of his personality, it's because he has a lively one. During the '83 European title game against Italy, he drew a technical foul for throwing a towel in the path of an Italian on a breakaway. Last May, at the European qualifying tournament for the Olympics, he ripped the warmup pants off a substitute he felt was too slow getting to the scorer's table. "He tends to treat the national team as his own club team," says de la Serna. "He plans months ahead and does things that are very complex. Most national teams go for simple stuff because they have many players coming from many clubs. But he's right to do it the way he does. He doesn't have the sheer power. He has to find other weapons."
The man who does Diaz-Miguel's sophisticated bidding on the court is 5'11" Juan Antonio Corbalan, a 29-year-old playmaker who recently completed his residency in cardiology at Madrid University Hospital. Los Angeles will be the third Olympics for Dr. JA, who sees the floor as well as any point guard in the world. If having a heart doctor running your offense isn't enough, how about a 6'8", 220-pound power forward who was once the Madrid high school Ping-Pong champ? That's Fernando Martin, 22, who's also a former national team handball candidate. Corbalan and Martin embody Spain's two great assets, smarts and quickness.
But the spirit of the club is Juan Antonio San Epifanio, 24, a 6'5" forward called Epi, whose jumper and ability to run patterns recalls Doug Collins before his many injuries. Epi recently signed a lucrative contract with his club, F.C. Barcelona, that runs through 1987. "He's a proud and cocky s.o.b.," says one person close to the team. "He knows he's going to make that last-second shot." His 18-foot jumper beat the Soviets in the semis of the Europeans last year.
Six-foot eleven inch Fernando Romay, 24, has Sam Bowie's slouch and knack for blocking shots—he led the '82 worlds in that category—but is sometimes too slow to recover on Diaz-Miguel's sophisticated traps. Six-foot-four Juan Manuel Lopez Itturiaga, a 25-year-old streak-shooting Basque, plays the best defense on the team, and 6'5" José María Margall, 29, provides experience at either guard or forward. "We have good shooters," says Diaz-Miguel. "Our problem could be defense. We must learn to play with our bodies, not our hands."
Epi and Candido Antonio Sibilio, a native of the Dominican Republic, would have given Spain perhaps the finest pair of shooting forwards in the world. But Sibilio begged off the national team this year to play in a professional summer league in Santo Domingo, where he hopes to earn enough money to bankroll his new restaurant in Barcelona. His absence will force San Epifanio to rebound more and truncate Spain's already short bench. But Sibilio had a Spencer Haywood way of going it his own way on and off the court, and some insiders think his departure will further unite a team that has to play together to win.
On the occasions when they don't get the break, the Spaniards go into a 1-4 alignment (above, left) to set up two possibilities to free San Epifanio (3). Corbalan (1) dribbles (wavy line) to Epi's side of the court while Epi cuts (solid line) off a screen from Romay (5). If Epi isn't open, Corbalan passes (broken line) to Martin (4) at the high post and screens low for Romay. Martin can bury the shot from the circle, or he can flash the ball across to Romay (above, right) and go down low to pick for Epi who will pop out for his deadly 17-footer.