Denny Crum sat at the desk in the press conference room, waiting for questions. The USA team he coached, easily reached the final game of the 1987 Panamerican Games, against Brazil, and, frankly, there was not much to say, given the almost certain superiority of the American team.
One year earlier, the mayor of Indianapolis had asked Bobby Knight, the legendary Hoosiers (University of Indiana) coach, to accompany him to the presentation of the city. Knight had denied saying, in his kind temper: “we should not even be there”; meaning the US were too strong, especially in basketball. (maybe he was also remembering Puerto Rico’s incidents when he led the USA team in the 1979 edition of the Pan Am games…)
The journalist struggled to find any question, until somebody thought that there were opponents on the court, and dared to ask: “who is the strongest players of the others?”
Crum opened his eyes. He realized he did not even know well who these people were. He moaned, while an assistant rushed to check the other team players’ names, and came out with one: Oscar.
Crum didn’t know much about him. Said something just to show he knew, not worrying much about somebody his players could defend against well. Oscar could mean the award Hollywood gives to the best actor. That night he slept well, probably thinking when he would get home.
On the other side, Ary Vidal, Brazil’s coach, was well aware of the challenge he was facing. It’s always like that, when any team meets the US. In no sport decently spread around the globe, have the US retained a domination like basketball. Winning a game against the US certificates the growth of a basketball movement, so it is understandable that Denny Crum felt relaxed and Ary Vidal tense.
Until 1988, the US had lost only one game at the Olympics: the controversial 1972 final against USSR. In 1976 and in 1984 they had regained their prominence, so they thought everything was “business as usual”.
Two things were happening, though.
First, the basketball players abroad trained more and better, the players’ average height and physicality was increasing, and finally posed a real threat to the Americans’ domination.
Second, and more important, the three point shot.
The three points shot was born in the ABA, a competitor of the NBA, at the end of the 70s, and the NBA adopted it at the beginning of the 80s. A couple of years later Europe adopted it, where it did not seem to change much the attitudes of the teams.
Americans did not understand the 3 pt shot. They kept thinking they had to dominate in the paint with big players. Their aim was to make the ball arrive in the 3 seconds area. Instead, in Europe, and in South America, players and coaches decided they wanted to take advantage of it, and trained the players to shoot constantly.
Incidentally, the greatest shooter of the world, played in the Brazil national team, and his name was Oscar Schmidt.
Oscar’s professional career took him to Italy, to play in Caserta, where he competed with the likes of Dalipagic and Bob Morse to be the best offensive player. The Nets had chosen him in 1984, but he did not want to give up the National team, so he decided to continue to play in Europe.
The Brazilian national team was a group of friends, led by Oscar, the go-to guy, and Marcel De Souza on the court. Ary Vidal sat on the bench. A leading man, one that Oscar cited in his hall of fame speech, Vidal was a combatant. He infused the team with fighting spirit, combining it with a clear plan, that was to shoot 3s giving the ball to Oscar, defend strong and not ever give up.
Until the final, Schmidt had an average of about 36 points per game, dominating with his shoot, his infinite arsenal of offensive tools, and his leadership on the court. You could feel that the Brazilians liked to play with one another, they relied on one another, always taking responsibility and accepting an error even in a shot from 8 or nine meters. It was modern basketball showing itself, while the Americans kept playing inside the arc, using the three pointer only when the two pointer was impossible.
The American team, was a very good one: David Robinson, Purvis Ellison, Rex Chapman, Pooh Richardson, Willie Anderson, Danny Manning and, among the ones who did not make it to the NBA, such European stars as Fennis Dembo, Dean Garrett. Keith Smart was the guard who had scored the decisive shot for Indiana in the Final Four, the home boy. Dennis Crum had been coaching for thirty years, beginning as an assistant at UCLA with John Wooden, experienced, winning attitude, great players creator.
Team USA started strong. They defended very toughly and to keep Oscar out of the game. Oscar missed shots, struggled to receive the ball, while the Americans scored easily holding the center of the area with David Robinson and Purvis Ellison. Manning passed the ball with his superb technique, wearing a disturbing knee-pad, that foresaw the injuries that shortened a likely stellar career.
Brazil was on the brink of receiving a good lesson. The Brazilian broadcasters commented with low voices as to say that the Americans were too strong, conceding the game with fair play, but with a bit of bitterness.
Nevertheless, coach Vidal never lost the faith. He changed players. Screamed on the sideline, instilled in his boys a spirit, a resilience, to make them keep the courage and fight. The ball had to go to Oscar, it did not matter if he made an error. Oscar’s teammates had an infinite trust in him, they knew he was one of the best offensive players in the world, it did not matter if he made one or two or three mistakes.
One truth about the great offensive players, is that you can stop them sometimes, you can erase them from the game for some minutes, but they will find a way, at a certain moment, to hit. And if they find that spot, it does not matter how small it is, they will dig into it, they will follow that light, although dim, and will get to the other side. And when that happens, you have no chance. If the great offensive players regain confidence, you have no hope.
A couple of minutes before the half (the game time was divided in two halves of 20 minutes), USA led by 20, 62-42. In one of those moments in which the attention of the defense goes down, when you start to feel the illusion that it will be, partially, easy, Brazil scored a 12-6, capped by a Marcel’s three pointer at the last second, which gave hope to Brazil. 68-54, at the half.
In the interval, Oscar kept thinking. He understood he had to be extreme; he had to shoot whenever, in every moment and from every distance. Italian fans were used to his explosions, sequences of baskets you couldn’t stop. When he got hot, no defender stood a chance.
At the beginning of the second half, nothing seemed to change. Brazil needed something to trigger them, to push them to do more, to be better when they ever were. three minutes into the second half, Danny Manning on the right of Brazil’s three seconds area, made a behind the back pass to David Robinson, who scored.
A classy act, something Danny could do. Also something useless, an aesthetic gesture that, though in the absolute absence of unfairness, meant that it was a time to show a globetrotter attitude, as though they had won. It was 73-58.
The game changed somewhere in between this basket and David Robinson’s fourth foul, that Costas Rigas gave him because he dunked and remained hanging on the rim. A stupid rule of the time, that Costas applied clearly, as he always did in his career of top referee.
The Americans played inside the arc. Their schemes resembled the ones of the 60s with players trying the 4 or 5 meters shots, that today are felt like poison. The Brazilians tried the threes, making the USA team stretch his defense and letting the enormous Israel Andrade, the center, to fight under the basket and take offensive rebounds. Brazil was just missing to score.
Soon after Robinson’s foul, Oscar made one of his tracks inside the arc, getting out with Willie Anderson on him. Oscar received and shot so quickly that the defense did not expect it and scored to bring the game to 10 points of difference: 77-67.
The Americans miss a three pointer and on the Brazil’s attack, Oscar gave the ball to Israel Andrade, who scored and brought the game to 77-69.
On the offense, Oscar intercepted a wrong passage, then tried the three point, missing it. That was his idea, that’s what he’d do.
The Americans lost another ball on the offense and Brazil stormed ahead, gave the ball to Oscar that, from the middle of the area, let a sweet shoot, very high, go into the net. 77-71.
Oscar went to the defense screaming like the chief he was. They recovered another ball, and Marcel scored two points to make it 77-73.
A US tap-in after a battle in the area, brought the US to 79-73, with the young collegiate players accepting a kind of game they weren’t used to. Anyway, Marcel scored as the Americans came back distracted to make it 79-75.
Denny Crum called a time out. In that minute the “torcida”, the Brazilian fans, burst with their happy chants, supporting a team that had gone to the bench confident and strong, ready to play a game that seemed lost.
Back into the game Keith Smart scored , Oscar missed a three but Brazil was faster and recovered the ball to score two, 81-77.
US lost the ball in the offense, Gaddo, Brazil’s playmaker, waited for Oscar to use a pick by Andrade. Oscar exited the pick so near to his teammate that the defender could not touch him as he let go a triple to make it 81-80.
After a couple of plays, Rex Chapman missed an easy fastbreak. Gerson stretched his arms like an octopus and got the rebound, unleashed to Gaddo who gave to Oscar, who, without thinking, shot from 9 meters a triple to bring Brazil ahead, 83-81.
US scored two free throws, but Brazil gave the ball to Oscar who sank in his third three pointer in a row. 86-83.
Chapman scored two. 86-85.
On the offense, Oscar tried a three he missed, but Israel got the rebound and, against all the laws of basketball of the time, handed the ball to Oscar who was too fast for anybody and scored again a three, making it a 4/5 in a couple of minutes. 89-85
The Americans with a 6-0 partial went up again. Oscar missed a couple of shots, Manning and Alford sank free throws. On the offense, the US fouled Oscar, who missed a free throw, then the Americans scored again and went to 93-90.
If we look at this game with today’s eyes, Oscar’s game allowed already the spacing and the opening for the other players. As the defense doubled on Oscar, Marcel was free, with the defensive help too far away to come and close on him, because he had to recover from the arc. Marcel did a very easy backdoor and sank the 93-92.
After a free throw from Chapman, Marcel received on the free throw line, guarded by two players, turned back and saw Oscar coming along, passed and Oscar sank the 93-95.
Three free throws made the US get to 96-95, but Marcel De Souza received in the front of the basket, on the three points line, and scored, making it a 96-98.
Marcel again, 96-100.
On a later action, the US fouled Marcel on the three point line, and he scored all of them, making 103-98, after a basket by Danny Manning.
The game continued on the same storyline. The Americans played well inside the three point area, as though shooting did not exist, and the Brazilian received the ball only outside the three point area, making it difficult to double. Andrade made picks on the arc, Gerson rebounded and blocked while Gaddo managed the game as the point guard he was.
On 106-104, Oscar received the ball on the left of the offense, receiving a pick from Andrade. Got the ball, back to the basket, dribbled and found himself on the three point line with Danny Manning in front of him. Shot one foot inside the area. 108-104. Then he scored again recovering a ball near the basket and made it a 110-104. Then again on a fast-break shooting from four meters as he was going to the basket. 112-104.
Denny Crum called a timeout later, on 116-110 for Brazil. He did not really understand what was happening.
At that point, the Americans tried a rally, but it was too late. The game finished 120-115, with Oscar crying on the sideline. He had scored 35 points in the second half, 46 in total. He showed al his offensive movements, scoring from far and near and even fighting in the defense.
Team USA did not believe what had just happened. Denny Crum had to say that the NBA players would have won, and the journalists wondered how somebody could shoot like Oscar.
Denny Crum’s words explained that he, and the American Basketball, did not really understand what was happening in the world: “I don’t think we can say we had any problem playing together. In every game we played we had more assists than our opponent. . . . We had only six turnovers. . . . We just didn’t get the ball in the basket with the consistency that they did. We’re a much better shooting team than we showed tonight.”
He used concepts that were ok for the 50s and the 60s, thinking about the big men near the area. The truth is that Brazil was playing a more modern basketball, which probably would not have been enough to beat a professional team, but was enough to beat a very good college team.
Time went by. In 1972 USA lost a game after a controversial decision, they never saw that as a real defeat. In 1986 they had won the World Championship by 2 points. And in 1987 lost the Pan am games. College players were no more enough to win, and, more than that, European and South American basketball had better absorbed the novelty of the three point shot.
When Vlade Divac went to the US, at his first training he shot from far, and Kareem went to him, grabbed him by an arm and brought him under the basket, to tell him he had to play near the area.
Basketball was changing, and the Americans understood it later than the others. They learnt the first part of the lesson in Seoul Olympics in ’88, when they lost against USSR. This prompted the NBA players to play in the national team. But it took much more time and other defeats, one of which in Indianapolis again in the 2002 World Championship, to embrace a new style of play, that Mike D’Antoni first brought to the NBA and the Warriors now epitomize better than all.
At the press conference after the final, the American Journalists asked Oscar how he could shoot so well.
“My wife would go to practice and throw the ball back to me 500 times, a thousand times. That’s why I marry her.”
Oscar retired well into his 40s, after becoming officially the highest scoring professional in the world with more than 50.000 points, 13.000 of which in Italy.
After that game, it is certain Denny Crum remembered his name.