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THE SEOUL GAMES / DAY 7 : Commentary : Brazilians Have It Right: It's Only a Game

September 23, 1988|MARK HEISLER | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — Thank you, Oscar.

Thank you, Marcel.

Thank you Maury, Ari, Gerson and all the rest of you wacky Brazilians for reminding us just what it is that U.S. basketball has lost.


Remember when we could still say basketball was a game we played , instead of worked at?

The Brazilians, media darlings of the men's competition, laugh when they win, smile when they lose and talk, talk, talk. Is this center stage? It must be here to be enjoyed, right? Isn't everything?

The Americans have to win, always do and accept it like professionals, which most of them will be in a couple of weeks. They do their precisely timed 15 minutes of interviews and are shepherded back to the Olympic village to be entertained by videotapes of China or Egypt or whoever's next on the schedule.

The Brazilians spend their off-hours trying to buy up Itaewon and are otherwise all over the lot. When a South Korean woman running the interview room tells Coach Ari Vidal that he can't smoke, he sputters, "I have to smoke after the game! Wait for me!" and storms out.

A minute later, he's back, having cooled down, or smoked his cigarette in two drags.

The woman asks the spiritual leader of these merry men, Marcel Souza, to speak into his microphone.

"I don't need it, I can just speak," Souza said, figuring that he's only about 10 feet away from the handful of reporters, they can hear him, and why should technology come between the peoples of this earth?

The South Korean woman persists.

"Too much organization," Souza said, giving up.

The South Korean woman asks Souza, who speaks excellent English, if he'll translate for Vidal, who doesn't.

"Sure I would," he said, brightening. "I can sing something for you, too."

And then there is the Brazilian game, which is basically known in the United States as "tryin' one!"

In the United States, the saying is "Live by the jump shot, die by the jump shot." A coach would succumb to his ulcers or pull his entire squad's scholarships before he'd tolerate as many launches from the outback as the Brazilians put up in 10 minutes. But that's the way these guys like to play, and besides, it works now and then.

One time was against the mighty United States, on American soil in the '87 Pan American Games, and how much does anyone need in a lifetime?

Even if they knew in those light hearts of theirs that they were about to get beaten in retaliation--as they did--the Brazilians marched gaily to their slaughter.

"Our way of life, not worry that much about everything," Souza said before the game.

"Life is just a game. (Grinning) Somebody already said that. So we decide to play our funny game--any shot a good shot.

"No matter what happens, we will always be happy to play basketball because that's the way we like to play."

Too much organization, indeed.

In the United States, basketball used to be a large cult sport, the relaxed alternative to the two huge mass-appeal games, baseball and football. Then the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament started doing big numbers on television, and coaches started getting state cop escorts when they walked on the floor, and six-figure "consulting fees" from Nike and Adidas for allowing their teams to be outfitted with the magic trademark.

If you add up the perks in the Imperial Coachdom and find yourself in the $300,000 range, you might decide this is serious business, all right. Then you start hiding players from the press--they might say the wrong thing; someone might forget who the big guy is around here--or from the faculty, or from society, itself. Bingo! So this is what the big time is like.

Then there's the Olympic problem:

We invented this game, right?

We're miles ahead of everyone, right?

We have to win every game, right?

So the Amateur Basketball Assn. USA, a tiny office of zealous, over-officious people in Colorado Springs, Colo., chooses the bluest-chip coach it can find, regardless of whether there's still a warrant out on him from his last international competition, or whether he has a history of sequestering his team and turning the world against him.

To give U.S. Coach John Thompson his due: he has been personable, answering even questions he hates, graciously and responsively--Why didn't you pick more white guys?--especially compared to Bob Knight in 1984. Some criticism directed at Thompson does seem to smack of de facto racism; Brent Musburger nor anyone else ever wondered out loud why Knight cut Charles Barkley and Karl Malone and kept Jeff Turner.

When the U.S. opener here was followed by that 10-minute debacle with the press attache snapping orders at the press, Thompson changed the system into a workable one.

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