Note - this was scheduled for Tuesday but for some reason, surely user error, it didn’t go through. So we’re publishing it late.
After the fiasco in the 1972 Olympic basketball finals, which was featured here recently, the US was not fooling around in 1976. Although the team was still selected by committee, the new coach, UNC’s Dean Smith, persuaded them to do something unprecedented: they took the core of his Tar Heel team and also added three other ACC players.
This ended one of the big disadvantages the US had: the other countries spent years building a team where the US only had weeks. Smith’s insight was really smart. Mitch Kupchak, Tommy LaGarde, Walter Davis and Phil Ford were a great group. The other ACC players were Duke’s Tate Armstrong, NC State’s Kenny Carr and Maryland’s Steve Sheppard, all of whom were familiar with Smith’s intricate system. Toss in Phil Hubbard, Quinn Buckner, Adrian Dantley, Ernie Grunfeld and Scott May, whose son Sean would later play at UNC, and the US had a really, really good team.
Even so, they barely beat Puerto Rico, led by Marquette’s Butch Lee, 95-94, and some of the other teams were rising, notably Yugoslavia, whom the US played in the finals. The US won, 95-74 and the celebration was moving.
The US did not get a chance at revenge against the USSR in 1976 and in 1980, the US boycotted the Moscow games. In 1984, the USSR returned the favor, boycotting the LA games. The US didn’t play the USSR again until 1988, when they again lost, but this time without controversy, and were forced to settle for bronze.
As for Lee, he got his revenge in 1977, when he led Marquette to a win over UNC in the NCAA championship game, 67-59.