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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Olympic Memories: '84 --> '88 --> '92

The twin-propeller airplane was the first flight out from LaGuardia Airport in New York to Providence, Rhode Island. My destination was the Providence Civic Center, site of the very first in a series of pre-Olympic tune-up games between the 1984 Men’s Olympic Basketball team and a group of National Basketball Association stars thrown together in each city leading up to the opening ceremonies of the Los Angeles Olympics.

Upon arrival at the small arena in downtown Providence, I dropped my bags in the locker room designated for the NBA stars, and John Bagley, a prominent Boston College shooting guard and then-starter for the Cleveland Cavaliers, shouted out, “Hey, what size d’you wear?” 

I wore size 11, larger than the average 20-something male, but tiny in terms of the needs of most NBA stars.  Bagley wore 15s, and he grabbed my cheap pair of PONYs and squeezed his ‘big dogs’ inside as best he could.  He was ready.

Barkley congratulates Kurtinaitis in '92
As I counted some 9-10 NBA stars scattered around the locker, I remember walking down the small corridor to check in with my ABA-USA colleagues whom I knew distantly.  The head of the federation, Bill Wall, was busy hanging a small ABA-USA banner on the scorer’s table, while production assistants from ABC Sports tacked up wrinkled ABC Sports banners in strategic locations courtside. The banners were the type cheesy sports bars would steal and mount to their ceilings or bar room walls. I shook my head. This is sports marketing at the highest level? The Olympics?

Next step was to check in with our opponents, the 1984 USA Olympic Team, mainly to see my college buddy, Chris Mullin, who had just been named to the team. The players were all dressing, pulling on athletic socks and preparing for the Sunday afternoon game.  I figured the “right” thing to do would be to introduce myself to USA head coach Bobby Knight, then the vaunted coach of the Indiana Hoosiers.

“Coach,” I exclaimed with some bravado and confidence, “I’m Terry Lyons of the NBA, and I’m helping out with our players for today’s game.  If there’s anything I can do to help you out, please let me know.”

Simple enough, right? Knight’s response was classic. 

“If we need any help from you, we’re in big bleepin’ trouble,” he said.

I looked him dead in the eye, pivoted, and never looked back. I didn’t speak a word and haven’t said a word to him ever since.  I’m sure he realizes it’s his loss, right?

The USA played its series of games against the NBA stars, and all was well as they took the gold medal at the Games with the likes of Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Mullin - all fresh out of college – leading the way.  Standing in that locker room in Providence, I would never have imagined that eight years later, I would be inside the USA locker room in Barcelona, preparing the 1992 USA Basketball Dream Team to walk out to accept their gold medals, minutes after their resounding victory over Croatia and completing a month-long frenzy that was the birth and coronation of the greatest team in team sports history – The Dream Team.  Just like it was yesterday, I recall the Barcelona volunteer from Olympic basketball operations handing me the official Olympic Games boxscore, a pink page from the “triplicate” hand-written and old-school form.

Four years earlier, I had worked with the 1988 team as it trained throughout the USA before its trip to the ’88 Seoul Olympics under Coach John Thompson, the legend of Hoya Paranoya at Georgetown, the BIG East powerhouse. My lasting memory of that team was some quality time with then College Player of the Year, Danny Manning, who admitted to me that he thought the team was in trouble and that he honestly doubted their ability to bring home the gold. It was a combination of his honest review of their roster and its lack of scoring/shooting and a feeling of total burn-out, even before the team had left U.S. soil.

Indeed, he was right.  The then-Soviet Union defeated the USA and won the gold medal with the likes of the late Coach Alexander Gomelski, future Hawks forward Alexandre Volkov , future Golden State Warriors shooting guard Sarunas Marciulionis , center Arvydas Sabonis, legendary Naismith Hall of Fame inductee and sharp-shooter Rimas Kurtinaitis, who shot the lights out in ’88 and scored from three-point range at will, as USA defensive specialist Dan Majerle couldn’t stop nor contain him.

Whether it was those early days in ’84, the challenge of the ‘88 Games or the pinnacle in 1992, I was very proud to have “USA” on my polo shirt and honored to have played a small part in bringing the NBA players to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics medal ceremony. What many didn’t realize was that I was just as happy to see Lithuania’s Marciulionis accepting his bronze and, even happier for Croatia’s Drazen Petrovic as he accepted his silver. I was extremely proud of my friend Mully, who was now wearing his second Olympic gold.

The times had changed and, because of my job as the NBA Vice President of International Communications. I was thrust into this amazing world of international basketball intrigue.  From the heights of ’92 to the “near scare” in 2000 in Sydney to the lows of 2002 (in the World Championship) and 2004 in Athens when we managed only a bronze, it was a long, strange trip. Even as current USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo and the great Duke coach and multi-year head coach of the senior national team Mike Krzyzewski took to the helm to re-build the USA Basketball men’s teams and, more importantly, their pride, I had a front-row, courtside seat at the table. 

This is the first post in a series of blogs on the Olympic Games. Most will focus on my personal experiences at the Olympics (1992 to 2004), while some entries will come from working alongside the teams in ’84. ’88 and 2008. I will also post interesting viewpoints from the non-basketball Olympians, all gold medal winners. I will post some insights from the Dream Team, conduct a give and take, back and forth Q&A with Jack McCallum, the author of a great 20-year reflection on the Dream Team, and I look forward to providing some insight into the current USA athletes, all representing the USA with the dream of winning an Olympic medal. 

Please stay tuned to the Huffington Post and to my online magazine, for commentary beginning today and going through the closing ceremonies of London2012.

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