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The Soviet, Yugoslav and Spanish basketball teams battled to Olympic berths—as the NBA looked on

John Thompson, coach of the U.S. Olympic basketball team, would probably be loath to admit this, seeing as he's busy trying to persuade his players that they'll get a stout test in Seoul from a European team, but last week's European Olympic qualifying tournament in Rotterdam proved that something is still fundamentally funny about hoops in the Old World.

Finland played without its best player, Kari-Tekka Klinga, because he couldn't get off work. French coach Jean Galle skipped his team's preparatory tour in May to coach a French club team. The Yugoslavs, breathtakingly good at times, could be even better if a few of their young stars would quit chain-smoking. It's an open secret that the Soviet Union wins in spite of, not thanks to, its coach, Aleksandr Gomelsky. And host Holland, which flamed out before the final round, had to content itself with the news that 7'4" national-team no-show Rik Smits, late of Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was chosen No. 2 in last month's NBA draft by the Indiana Pacers. SMITS TO PLAY NEXT YEAR IN DRAFT Crowed One Dutch newspaper, as if Draft were a place, like Delft.

Indeed, by Sunday night it was hard to sort out exactly what had been won on the floor from what had been lost in translation, except that the three European representatives in Seoul will be Spain, Yugoslavia and the U.S.S.R., which finished the round-robin tournament unbeaten. Teams from two countries where basketball is enjoying an unprecedented vogue, Italy and Greece, performed gallantly but missed out on a trip to the Games. "I have asked that the rules be changed," said Gomelsky quite rightly. "It's a mistake that only three European teams qualify."

The most curious quintet at the Ahoy Sports Palace turned out to be an Irish side: The Boston Celtics contingent included coach Jimmy Rodgers, player personnel director K.C. Jones, general manager Jan Volk and scouts Forddy Anderson and Misho Ostarcevic. Being the Celtics, they even brought along a sixth man, owner Donald Gaston. Like the 15 or so other NBA folk in attendance, the men from Boston were ogling such undrafted or unsigned talents as Andres Jimenez, 25, a 6'9" forward from Spain; Sharunas Marchulenis, 24, a 6'3" guard who is the Soviets' vastly enlarged version of Gail Goodrich; and the Yugoslav prodigies, 6'11" Vlado Divac, 20, and 6'9" Tony Kukoc, 19, whom Marty Blake, the NBA's director of scouting, calls "the two best young players in the world."

A foreign player is eligible for the NBA draft in the calendar year in which he turns 22. When an NBA team chooses a player—Yugoslav guard Drazen Petrovic, now 23, was taken in 1986 by the Portland Trail Blazers, and Soviet forward Aleksandr Volkov, 24, was selected by the Atlanta Hawks in the same draft—it retains the rights to him in perpetuity. (If a player isn't drafted at 22, he becomes a free agent.) For young talents like Divac—"an NBA power forward right now," says Pacer general manager Donnie Walsh—or the sharpshooting Kukoc, the scouts just salivate and count the days until eligibility.

"There are only two college centers of any consequence in next year's draft," says Blake. "One of them [Oklahoma's Stacey King] is really a forward, and the other [Missouri's Gary Leonard] averaged five points a game last season. Ten guys here are prospects. You shouldn't have to ask why we're here."

After having successfully integrated such aliens as Akeem Olajuwon, Detlef Schrempf and Christian Welp in recent years, NBA teams picked Smits, Rolando Ferreira of Brazil, Jose Vargas and Tito Horford of the Dominican Republic and Hernan Montenegro and Jorge Gonzalez (7'7", 370 pounds and "no stiff," says Blake) of Argentina in this year's draft. That's six foreigners in a three-round draft. Clearly the NBA and the rest of the basketball world are moving closer together, the process having been nudged along by the summiteering of NBA commissioner David Stern and Borislav Stankovic of Yugoslavia, the secretary general of the Federation Internationale de Basketball Amateur (FIBA). Stankovic will convene a special session of FIBA next April, at which approval is expected for NBA players to compete in the 1990 World Championships in Buenos Aires and in the ensuing Olympics.

The main focus of interest for the out-sized Boston delegation in Holland was Stojan Vrankovic of Yugoslavia, a 7-foot center whom the Celtics have signed to play in 1988-89 for an estimated $200,000. He's 24, with the same long arms, shot-blocking aptitude and Draculean pallor as Kevin McHale, though he lacks McHale's facility at the offensive end. "You can't teach height, quickness or jumping ability," says Volk, ticking off qualities that Vrankovic has in abundance.

The Celtics would seem to have perpetrated another Auerbachian heist, except that after signing with Boston during the spring, Vrankovic also came to terms with Cibona, a club in Zagreb. Then he signed a contract with his old team, Zadar. As full of potential as Vrankovic is, no one would be satisfied with one third of his services, least of all Boston.

However, in a few weeks Vrankovic plans to marry a woman who will bear his child soon thereafter. Friends and teammates say that after the long Olympic campaign he'll want nothing less than to relocate his family in a strange land. Vrankovic says he'll decide after the Olympics, perhaps while puffing on one of his favored unfiltered cigarettes. His teammate Petrovic, who strung along Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps in 1984 by committing to play for the Irish and then never leaving Yugoslavia, thinks he knows what that decision will be. "Vrankovic will marry and stay with Zadar one more year," says the original Yunogo. "He's not decided, but I think he will do that."

In fact, the recent failures of Georgi Glouchkov of Bulgaria (with the Phoenix Suns) and Fernando Martin of Spain (with the Trail Blazers) will give many Eurohoopsters pause before leaving the Continent. What's more, the financial allure of the States isn't what it once was. Thanks in part to the NBA itself—the league is on TV in 65 countries—basketball is more popular than ever, and salaries for top club players are on the rise all over the world. NBA marginalia like James Bailey now get $400,000 to play in Italy, and Nick Galis, an erstwhile star at Seton Hall who never played a game in the NBA, pulls down nearly twice that to play in Greece. Says Blake, "The money has become so good in Europe that unless a guy is a surefire NBA player, like Marchulenis, there's no reason to leave."

Nearly lost in last week's international talent search was the purpose of the tournament. The U.S., as the defending Olympic champion, and South Korea, as the host country, both received passes to the Games. To determine the other 10 countries that will compete in Seoul, FIBA carved up the globe into five regions. Australia had already qualified from Oceania; Brazil, Puerto Rico and Canada from the Americas; the Central African Republic and Egypt from Africa; and the People's Republic of China from Asia.

Of the 18 European teams that converged on the Netherlands, any of five would have been worthy Olympians. Greece is the defending European champion, having stunned the Soviets in 1987 with the lead-guard play of the U.S.-born Galis (whose parents are from Greece). Since then Galis has gone through contract squabbles, injuries and the death of his estranged wife, Jenny, in a car accident. Recently his father-in-law accused him of responsibility in her death (charging, among other things, that Galis had placed her, without cause, in a psychiatric institution), and all the lurid particulars of those charges have been splattered through the Greek tabloids. Even as he led the tournament in scoring, with 28.2 points per game, Galis clearly wasn't himself last week. And to a country where nearly every TV set was tuned to the improbable '87 European final, Greece's failure to qualify for Seoul was a keen disappointment.

The Spanish, silver medalists in L.A., appeared to have missed out on the Seoul Games when they lost to Italy in what the NBA visitors agreed was as fine a game as was played on any continent this season. Italy's felicitously named Walter Magnifico stole an entry pass in the final minute and then found Giuseppe Bosa under the hoop. Bosa's flicked-in reverse layup put the Italians ahead 91-89. If Jose Montero of Spain hadn't muffed the back end of a one-and-one with two seconds left, the two best-coached clubs in Europe might still be playing. But Italy blew a subsequent game to Greece by the score of 91-88 and fell into a three-way tie with Greece and Spain—they all had 4-3 records in the final round—for the third Olympic berth. The tournament's pooh-bahs awarded the final spot to Spain based on total points scored.

The U.S.S.R.-Yugoslavia meeting turned into a reprise of their semifinal at the 1986 World Championships in Madrid. The Yugoslavs had led that game by nine points with 47 seconds to play, but they surrendered three straight three-pointers and went on to lose in overtime. Last week the Balkan bunglers blew a 15-point second-half advantage and fell 86-83.

Yugoslav coach Dusan Ivkovic, who looks as if World War I is about to break out again inside him, took over the team last year to instill the kind of discipline that's supposed to prevent such lapses. But in the second half, Zarko Paspalj of Yugoslavia, a splendid shooting forward and nicotine fiend who had huffed and puffed his way to 16 first-half points, clocked Volkov with an elbow. The 7-foot Soviet center Aleksandr Belosteni came at Paspalj with a roundhouse right that broke Paspalj's nose in two places and must have earned an admiring look from Thompson, who was ensconced in a seat in the top row.

The officials banished both players, and Gomelsky—with 7'2" Vladimir Tkachenko sidelined after reinjuring his back earlier in the tournament and 7'3" Arvydas Sabonis rehabilitating his Achilles tendon in Oregon and doubtful for the Olympics—was forced to use 6'11" forward Valery Goborov, 22, at center. Goborov scored three big baskets down the stretch, two on offensive rebounds, and snuffed a drive by Petrovic, who inexplicably didn't play for the game's first 7:26. "Instead of killing the bull," said Thompson after the game, "the Yugoslavs did whatever you do when you've got the cape."

Yet Gomelsky insisted that Goborov isn't a center, and unless Gomelsky is playing possum, Thompson may be spared having to see the lineup that clicked so wondrously against the Yugoslavs and later against Spain. With Belosteni sitting out a suspension for fighting, Goborov helped boost the Soviets to a 129-82 win over Spain.

As glasnost continues apace, some of the more senior Soviet players are expected to sign with club teams in the West after the Olympics. Rimas Kurtinaitis, 27, is supposedly ticketed for West Germany; Belosteni, 29, is rumored to be headed for either France or Greece. Gomelsky had told his players that no one would be going anywhere unless they won the tournament. He may have been bluffing, but at least the old man knows something about motivation.



Marchulenis of the U.S.S.R. is a state-of-the-art player who has pro scouts drooling.



Yugoslavia is led by Petrovic (4), who was drafted by Portland.



A pro scout calls Divac (left) one of the world's top young players.



Jones (left), Volk (center) and Rodgers gave Vrankovic a spiel, but is he sold on the Celts?



Spain (in red) didn't back down to anyone and stole away with the last Olympic berth.