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BENNER: Brazil humbled Team USA at Pan American Games

August 4, 2012

In recognition of this month’s 25th anniversary of the Pan American Games, the Indiana Sports Corp. has been soliciting recollections from the 36,000 volunteers who staffed Indy’s grand coming-out party.

I was not a volunteer, but here’s my Pan Am story, and how it plays forward to today.

In my journalism job with the local daily, I was assigned to cover the men’s basketball competition. It was a plum assignment, given that it would serve as one of the games’ marquee attractions but especially so since basketball is so much a part of our heritage and the fact that the men’s team included Keith Smart and Dean Garrett, fresh from winning a national championship for Indiana University.

The team, coached by the University of Louisville’s Denny Crum, also included the likes of David Robinson (Navy), Danny Manning (Kansas), Pervis Ellison (Louisville) and Rex Chapman (Kentucky).

In other words, a star-studded lineup of college talent expected to stroll through the competition and easily win the gold medal. After all, the USA had won 28 straight games in the Pan Ams, including every gold medal since 1971.

This wouldn’t be a competition as much as an exhibition.

And that’s how it was playing out as Team USA steamrolled through its first six opponents, winning by an average of 25 points a game. Even a narrow, 80-75 win over Puerto Rico in the semifinals didn’t sound an alarm.

That victory matched the USA against Brazil for the gold medal. Brazil had a roster stocked with older veterans of many years of international competition and the European leagues. It was led by then 29-year-old Oscar Schmidt—known as the “Brazilian Big O”—and his 30-year-old sidekick Marcel Souza.

In the preliminary rounds, I hadn’t seen anything like Schmidt and Souza since the days of Kokomo’s Jimmy Rayl and Lebanon’s Rick Mount. Basically, they had the green light to shoot from anywhere, anytime. Their teammates’ rolls were to (A) rebound and (B) get the ball to Schmidt and Souza.

“We are the piano players and (our teammates) are the piano carriers,” Souza famously said.

“For us,” added Schmidt, “any shot is a good shot.”

Defense was an afterthought.

On the final Sunday of the Pan Ams, a sellout crowd of 16,000-plus gathered in Market Square Arena to watch what they expected to be a coronation for Team USA. CBS made the game the centerpiece of its Pan Am telecast.

And for a half, it played out as most thought. Team USA opened a 68-54 halftime lead. Schmidt and Souza were getting shots, but not making enough.

Then, it turned. In one of the most spectacular halves of basketball I’ve ever witnessed, the “piano players” turned it on Team USA. Schmidt and Souza, shooting with abandon, combined to score 55 of Brazil’s 66 points in the second half. Team USA was helpless to stop them.

When it was over, the boys from Brazil had scored a stunning 120-115 victory. Schmidt, who would go on to become the all-time leading scorer in international competition (more than 49,000 points) finished with 46. Souza added 31.

Few could believe what had happened. But a year later, when Coach John Thompson’s Olympic team—again, made up of college players—lost to the Soviet Union in Seoul and settled for the bronze, it was clear that boys could no longer do the men’s job of representing the United States in elite international competition.

Thus, in Barcelona in 1992 came the Dream Team and the return (except for embarrassing losses in the 2002 World Championships here in Indy and the 2004 Athens Games) of American dominance expected to continue through these London Games.

But, alas, NBA Commissioner David Stern is now suggesting to USA Basketball that it scale back and limit its roster for future Olympics to an age limit of 23.

If Stern gets his wish, I predict Team USA will be hard-pressed to keep the gold coming. International competition—Argentina, Spain, Germany, Brazil, Lithuania, Russia—is just too good.

In any case, even though I’m an American, I will always pleasantly remember being there at MSA when the first domino tumbled. I’m also happy to say that in my covering subsequent international competitions, both Schmidt and Souza became friends of mine. Souza presented me with his Olympic jersey from 1992, and Schmidt brought me a jersey when he came to Indy to witness (he had retired) the 2002 World Championships.

The piano players … what a chord they struck 25 years ago.•

Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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