Greg Hansen: 1986 title showed world top Cat could flat coach

2011-08-23T00:00:00Z 2011-08-23T15:00:24Z Greg Hansen: 1986 title showed world top Cat could flat coachGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 23, 2011 12:00 am  • 

In celebration of Arizona's centennial, the Star is featuring our picks for the 100 best athletes, moments and teams. Throughout the summer, we have been showcasing our list. Here is the fourth of Greg Hansen's top 10.

Lute Olson

Lute Olson caught an overnight flight from LAX to Amsterdam in late June 1986. He changed planes on a Saturday afternoon and flew on to Paris to begin a revealing 12-game, 22-day odyssey that would define his career as much as any other series of games.

At Charles de Gaulle Airport, Olson fumed when his luggage didn't arrive. There was no time to shop and Olson has never been one to dress inappropriately, especially on the world stage.

Team USA would play two exhibition games in France and then fly to Spain, where his college kids would play the pros from Italy, Russia, Yugoslavia, Argentina and Brazil. The U.S. had not won the world championship for 32 years, and now Olson had lost his USA Basketball coaching wardrobe.

So he borrowed coaching gear from the team trainer, Tim Garl of Indiana. When the Americans held their first workout, and later, when they arrived in Spain, Olson often wore a red "Indiana Hoosiers" shirt.

That's how single-minded Olson was in his attempt to make a mark in international basketball. He wore the jersey of a former Big Ten rival rather than interrupt his preparation.

I followed Olson during his run as the head coach of USA Basketball, from training camp in Colorado Springs, to a pair of sold-out exhibition games in McKale Center, and finally to the tense qualifying and medal-round games in Malaga, Oviedo and Madrid, Spain.

That two-month journey affirmed more about Olson's coaching ability than anything I saw during his 776 games as Arizona's basketball coach. It was a compelling period in which you realized Olson was not simply a good recruiter, nor that he could win only when blessed with extraordinary players. And neither was he lucky.

No wonder he coached the Wildcats to 24 consecutive NCAA tournaments.

It began in late May at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. USA Basketball had assembled about 60 players; from that roster, Olson would take 15 to Europe.

I sat on a folding chair at the OTC and scribbled down the 10 players sure to make the roster. I began with UCLA shooting specialist Reggie Miller and underlined the name of Pervis Ellison, a Louisville freshman who six weeks earlier led the Cardinals to the NCAA title.

Olson cut Miller two days into camp, citing "chemistry issues." Miller's it's-all-about-me persona wouldn't play well on a scrappy team that needed to attack the much older Euros with defense and guile. He released Ellison a day later when it was clear that Ellison was more interested in his new-found celebrity than playing hard all summer.

The team Olson brought to Tucson seemed to have no chance to contend for a medal in Spain, especially against Brazil's 28-year-old scoring machine, Oscar Schmidt, and EuroLeague veterans, such as the Soviet Union's 7-foot-3 Arvydas Sabonis, Yugoslavia's Drazen Petrovic and Italy's Antonello Riva, who looked 10 years older than America's kids, none of whom had yet played their senior year of college ball.

Olson carefully chose Wake Forest's 5-foot 3-inch Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues, believing the spitfire guard would be a disruptive defensive force; he chose Arizona junior Steve Kerr, not for his athleticism but because he could drill international-distance three-pointers, even though the NCAA had not yet implemented three-point shooting; and Olson added UNLV defensive/rebounding specialist Armen Gilliam, a virtual unknown who had the willingness to play the Europeans' physical style. At center, Olson chose slender Navy junior David Robinson, who had yet to emerge as a flat-out star.

All of Olson's choices worked. Team USA eliminated the favored Yugoslavs to qualify for the medal round; the disruptive Bogues held Petrovic to two points in the first half as Olson's gamble to guard a 6-5 player with one 14 inches shorter worked.

In the semifinals against Schmidt and Brazil, Kerr, who shot an incredible 50 percent (18 for 36) from international three-point range, tore up his knee. He was Team USA's only three-point shooting threat. But Robinson and Gilliam played well enough to put the Americans into the title game against the Soviets.

With one day to prepare for the gold medal game, Olson and his kids took a bus to the Madrid Sports Palace. Police and tournament officials met them at the door. They told Olson that the Soviets were practicing and that the USA should arrange to work out elsewhere.

Interpreters relayed the news to Olson. Would this college coach and his college kids be intimidated and go away?

Much like a baseball manager getting in the face of an umpire, Olson became animated.

"If we don't practice right now, there won't be a game tomorrow," he roared. "You can tell that to the TV people and to the 15,000 people who bought all the tickets. If we don't practice right now, we are leaving."

Interpreters relayed his words to FIBA, Soviet and Spanish officials. Olson crossed his arms, not giving an inch.

Five minutes later, Team USA was on the floor.

Twenty-four hours later, Olson's team shocked the Soviet Union's national team, 87-85, to win America's first world championship since 1954.

This time Olson didn't need an Indiana shirt to pull off his own version of "Hoosiers."

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