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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | BASKETBALL

U.S. Does Steering Against Yugos

Men's basketball: Gold medal won despite physical play and stubborn Yugoslavia in 95-69 victory.

August 04, 1996|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Let's see, what do we have to do to get out of here?

Pick up our gold medals, pack our bags. Don't forget the pictures--here we are with James Brown, with Vice President Gore, with Bishop Tutu--call the limos, fly home, catch the closing ceremonies on TV if there's nothing better on.

Did we forget anything?

Oh, the game.

For the first time, a Dream Team found itself needing to play to survive, letting the Yugoslavs come within one point with 14:03 left Saturday night before overwhelming them with sheer force of numbers, 95-69, to win the gold medal, if not win over its critics.

"Forgive me," said Coach Lenny Wilkens moments after the award ceremony. "Jesus couldn't silence the critics, what makes you think the gold medal is going to?"

It was the Americans' most lackluster effort of the Games and the more frustrated they got, the more it degenerated into scraps and taunts.

While Vlade Divac got tangled up with Karl Malone in a harmless twirl-around, Reggie Miller got in the face of the Yugoslav coach, Zelimir Obradovic, and was pushed away by a Yugoslav player on the bench.

Moments later, Malone put Dejan Bodiroga on the limping list with a shot to the thigh. The two exchanged insults.

Divac fouled out and pulled his jersey up over his head in protest. Charles Barkley pulled his jersey over his head to protest Vlade's protest.

Barkley tried to run down Sasa Obradovic on a fastbreak and was called for charging.

Barkley ended his night and Olympic career, picking up a technical foul that also counted as his fifth, and last, personal foul.

"We weren't trying to bully them, nothing like that," said Miller. "But we were trying to establish our ground."

The Yugoslavs were just happy to be on a court with them. Yugoslavia got into this game with an emotional victory over favored Lithuania Thursday, meaning it could do no worse than silver medals.

"This is the gold medal for the rest of the world," said an overjoyed Divac after the semifinals. "Ninety-nine point nine percent chance they beat us but we play hard.

"My father and mother watched the game at home, 1 o'clock in the morning, they watched. There are 300,000 people at the airport waiting when we return from the European Championships last year. This time, even with silver medal there will be more.

"Three months we practiced for '92 Olympics and they tell us we won't have a chance to play. That is why you see players crying now."

Few really figured the Yugoslavs to put up much of a fight against the U.S. before retiring to celebrate their second-place finish but then few people figured the Americans were going to miss their first six shots and so many of the rest.

Led by Zarko Paspalj, a 6-foot-9 former San Antonio Spur who had 16 points by halftime, Yugoslavia took a seven-point lead, the largest anyone has had over a Dream Team at the Olympics.

However, the Yugoslavs were out there with a few veterans and a prayer. Four of them played all 20 minutes of the first half, including Divac, who fouled out less than five minutes into the second half.

With the Yugoslavs panting, the Americans took their first lead with 3:12 left in the first half. Then they let the Yugoslavs hang around for a while. With 14:03 left, Alexander Djordevic hit a three-pointer and it was U.S. 51, Yugoslavia 50.

"All along, we've been telling people the teams in '96 are better than the teams in '92," said Wilkens. "I guess people have to see. We had a game on our hands."

More like the illusion of one.

Divac had just fouled out. His backup, Zelko Rebraca, a promising young 6-11 player who isn't even as physical as Divac, couldn't handle David Robinson and the Americans pulled away. With the Yugoslavs out of it, they even ran up a final score that made the game look one-sided.

"We were talking about this after the game," Wilkens said. "I have to be honest with you. There isn't a college team that could beat Yugoslavia. There's not one that could beat Lithuania. I don't think there's one that could beat Argentina, the way they're playing.

"You have to give these people credit. They are a hundred times better than they were in '92 and hopefully the world had a chance to see that, the execution, the defense, the shooting.

"These teams came out and competed. They didn't show up here just to be here and certainly we salute them."

Still, it's Dream Teams 2, rest of the world 0. The Americans won their games by an average of 31.5 points. It wasn't the 44 the original Dreamers ran up in Barcelona but as a team, they were still formidable. And as an attraction, they were still hot.

But as a story, they were over.

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