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Original Issue

Rooting Against the Bullies

If the professionalized U.S. Olympic basketball team loses, this writer wants to be there

The big fall awaits. I want to be there when it happens. I want to stand in the corridor of that faraway arena and watch the members of the U.S. Olympic basketball team cut through the media crowd in a hurry, their agents and hangers-on and shoe-company reps trying to clear a path. I want to hear the no comments muttered. I want to write in my little notebook the names on the designer sunglasses that cover the swollen eyes on each famous face. I want to be there when this team loses.

"Magic!" I want to shout. "What went wrong?"



I want to join the crowd around that kid from Belgrade or Buenos Aires or maybe Ponce and listen to his 88th explanation—in halting English—of his night of wonder. How did he do it? He is not sure. The ball simply felt natural in his hands, as if it had been there since birth. Do you understand? There since birth? I want to go over his statistics, perfect numbers that indicate he never missed a shot, no matter what defense or what multimillionaire was thrown at him. How did he do it? I want to describe the kid's smile.

There will be bleatings in some conference room. I want to hear them. The officials were partisan. The international rules are silly. There should have been more practice time. Michael had a cold. No one had had a good cheeseburger in weeks. There was too much pressure from "you guys, the media." Nobody's perfect. Maybe an all-star team isn't the best idea. Maybe the team should have stayed in the Olympic Village, after all, instead of in some swanky five-star hotel.

"Do you think this team needed a little humility, Chuck?" I want to ask. "Is that the word we're looking for? Humility!"

"Do you think the entire project was doomed from the start, Larry, beginning with that cheesy introduction show that had half the players wearing tuxedos and smiling as if they were appearing in some MTV video? Do you think that was it?"

"Is this the ultimate example of the wonder of sport, Sir Charles, the idea that on any given day anything can happen? Is this a modern fable, a confused group of rabbits watching a steady turtle commit no turnovers and play solid, in-your-face defense? How did it feel to be on that beanstalk when it suddenly started to shudder and list to one direction?"

I once talked with Vladislav Tretiak, the goaltender for the Soviet hockey team in 1972. He was the star at the Montreal Forum in the famous first game of a special eight-game challenge series that turned his sport upside down. For years before that series, Canada had followed a script that seems almost identical to the one U.S. basketball is following. Once an international behemoth in a game it claimed to have invented, it began to lose tournament after tournament, mostly to the Soviets. The cries were quite familiar. All the best players are off in the pros! We're losing with kids! Good kids, but kids! Wait until we play these guys with the pros! This night in Montreal was the first chance.

The Soviets came out with inferior, almost laughable equipment. They had strange names, strange warmup drills, strange strategies. The Canadians had an injured Bobby Orr, perhaps, but their roster came from the top of the NHL salary charts. Phil Esposito. Jean Ratelle. Bobby Clarke. Who could stop these guys? Who had a chance? The obvious phrase, "Best team of all time," was uttered. Who could stop the best team of all time?

Seven minutes into the game the Canadians had a 2-0 lead. Who could stop these guys? There was great and giddy celebration, accompanied by profound relief. The Soviets then scored four straight goals and rolled on to a 7-3 win. They were a revelation with their passing and teamwork, unbelievably different. All of Canada reeled in shock. It is a fact that the Canadians eventually prevailed 4-3, with one tie, in the eight-game series, on a goal by Paul Henderson in the final game in Moscow that is now regarded as being as monumental in the game of hockey as any home run hit by Bobby Thomson in any Polo Grounds. But on that one night myths crumbled as if they had been built by government contractors.

"What do you remember most about that night?" I asked Tretiak.

"It is funny," he said. "I remember most the music. In my country, at the games, we never played music. In the Forum, they played music all the time. When Canada scored those first two goals, there was a lot of music. Music everywhere. Then we scored and scored, again and again, and, pretty soon, there was no music."

I want to be there when the music stops for American basketball. I want to talk with the basketball Tretiak. I want to laugh a little bit as windbag predictions by glib authorities are flattened. Is this unpatriotic? I think not. Americans root for the underdogs most of the time and root against the bullies. The U.S. basketball team, built with such pretentious glee and such outrageous expectations, has become the ultimate bully. Is it so sad to see a bunch of guys walk slowly from a gymnasium after losing a basketball game, accompanied by their manservants and accountants, off to their mansions and strings of polished automobiles? I think not.

It probably won't happen in Barcelona in 1992, but if it does, it will be the sports story to end all sports stories. Sure, I want to be there.