Alvan Adams, Team USA and Avenging the 1972 Olympics
If you search the USA basketball archives, you’ll find there as a Redeem Team before the self-named 2008 team or even the Dream Team of 1992.
Twenty years before the latter’s groundbreaking appearance in Barcelona, there was little basketball love for the Soviet Union after the controversial ending of the 1972 Olympic gold medal game, in which the Soviets were the beneficiaries of a wild ending that saw the gold medal snatched from the Americans’ already-celebrating hands. It marked the second time in a row the U.S. had been forced to accept silver (the 1970 World University Games was the other).
As fate would have it, however, the next stage of international basketball was Moscow, the capital of the USSR and home of Team USA’s all-too-recent heartbreak. The event: The World University Games.
Because NBA players were not permitted to play in international competition at the time, the pool of college talent from which the U.S. team drew was the same as it would be in an Olympic year. Twenty-six of the country’s elite prospects were invited to try out for the squad.
Among them: Oklahoma freshman and eventual Suns Ring of Honor member Alvan Adams.
“[I thought] this was going to be a tough team to make,” he remembered. “There’s 26 people and they’re only going to keep 13. If I make this team it will be an accomplishment.”
When the final roster was announced, Adams’ name was still there, as were those of high-flying guard David Thompson (North Carolina State), Marvin Barnes (Providence), Quinn Buckner (Indiana) and Maurice Lucas (Marquette) as well as other standouts.
This version of Team USA, however, wound up being especially young. Half of the 12-man roster was 19 years old or younger, including Adams
They were not too young to understand the opportunity at hand, however. Since the same non-NBA rules held for all countries – and because international NBA players were an absolute rarity at the time – Adams’ 1973 team would face a familiar USSR squad.
“I made that team that played the team that basically beat our Olympic team,” Adams said.
That matchup didn’t happen until, appropriately enough, the gold medal game. Team USA’s path to that point was marked with the craters of near-triple-digit victories. One three-game stretch saw them beat Sweden by 120-31, Portugal 140-34, and France 137-43.
As the medal rounds commenced, however, the more hoops-oriented nations began to surface. There were wonderings as to whether there might be politically oriented priorities in play for game officials.
“The writers wrote that it would be tough for the USA to win because of the referees,” Adams said. “It’d be very hard for us to beat Cuba and Russia because the referees aren’t going to [give them any calls].”
One specific instance involved Thompson, who Adams dubbed as the ’73 team’s “star.” The 6-5 guard was coming off a sophomore season in which he’d averaged 24.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game while shooting 57 percent from the floor.
It was Thompson’s aereal attack, however, that gave the U.S.A. a near-unstoppable element on the court, one that Adams says added a revolutionary play to the game of basketball in general.
“The history of the alley-oop, the lob pass, started with North Carolina State and David Thompson,” Adams said. “He was on our team. His [college] coach was our [assistant] coach, Norm Sloan. Our plays were ‘set a back pick, get out of the way, throw it [in the air] to David.”
By the time the U.S. had logged multiple victories in exhibition play, however, their secret weapon had been exposed and - by some within international power circles – deemed an unfair advantage.
“By the time we got to Bulgaria on our tune-up games before Russia, they changed the international rules,” Adams laughed. “'Number 42 can no longer take off in the lane. He must take off outside the lane to catch and dunk.' What kind of rule is that?”
Keep in mind that the international lane, at the time, was dissimilar in shape. Because of its trapezoidal shape (as opposed to the straighter key shape found on U.S. courts), the base of the lane was much wider than its American counterpart.
Not that it mattered.
“’David, take off outside the lane,’” Adams recalls the coaches saying.
Despite such rule altering and playing on a rival’s soil, the U.S. continued to storm through the competition. Thompson scored 34 in a quarterfinal win over Cuba that featured a brawl near the end of the game. Brazil and its equally spotless 7-0 record were next in the seminfals, but Thompson (17 points) and Lucas (17 rebounds) helped Team USA advance wtiha hard-fought 66-60 victory.
Nearly 15,000 Soviet fans were on hand for the highly anticipated gold medal game between the USA and USSR. Thompson again led the way, logging a double-double with 24 points and 10 rebounds as the U.S. recaptured the gold after consecutive international tournaments tainted with silver.
For the tournament, Adams ranked seventh on the team in scoring (6.9 ppg) as one of the key cogs off the bench. For him and his teammates, their gold medals from 1973 symbolized a much-needed comeback for USA Basketball.
“We thought of that,” Adams admits. “Just a year ago we had lost in Munich. It was great.”