SI Vault
A kind of Mexican standoff
Kenny Moore
November 03, 1975
Both U.S. basketball teams won and a cocky young heavyweight managed to look good in losing
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 03, 1975

A Kind Of Mexican Standoff

Both U.S. basketball teams won and a cocky young heavyweight managed to look good in losing

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

The VII Pan-American Games were nearly over, and Wayne Rollins sat in the sun and smiled at the flocks of schoolchildren swarming through the athletes' village. The 7'1" center from Clemson rested the heel of one size 17 triple-E sneaker on the toe of the other. "It's nice they run them through here," he said, pleased with the diversion. "These two weeks have been nothing but eat and sleep and play ball."

"And ride the bus," added Head Coach Marv Harshman of Washington. "Transportation to the practice gyms out in the country has driven us batty. Our ratio of bus hours to practice hours has run about four to one." Those were hours of staring at the endless volcanic stone walls of Mexico City crested with jutting shards of broken glass, hours to ponder the rivalries that the Mexicans had done their best to fan. "You can feel it," said Phil Bond, the Louisville guard. "The Games were organized so that everything ended up being the U.S. vs. Cuba. I think sports should be a way to relieve tensions, not build them up."

But the buildup went on, right up to the basketball final between the Cuban and U.S. women. "We had wanted to whip Cuba before," said Charlotte Lewis, the center from Illinois State. "But by game time, we were out to hang 'em."

Whip them they did, 70-64, as five Cubans fouled out. "That was rougher than any game the men have had," said Harshman. " Cuba put people in there just to go after a few of our women." Juliene Simpson, suffering from a cut knee, preserved the six-point lead in the final minutes by dribbling and drawing fouls, each of which restarted the 30-second clock under international rules. While she dribbled, her teammates leaped in the corners with unrestrained joy. The gold medal was the first for U.S. women in Pan-American basketball since 1963, and they danced on the bench until the arena lights were turned out.

The men's contest with Cuba began amid choruses of boos for both teams. In Cuba's case, the reaction was to an incident earlier in the week. After Cuba had lost 89-85 to surprising Puerto Rico, leaving the U.S. the only undefeated team in the nine-game, round-robin tournament, the Cuban basketball commissioner, Jos� Alvarez, accosted the Canadian referee in the village cafeteria and punched him in the eye, an act for which Alvarez was quickly shipped home.

Early steals by Bond and Johnny Davis of Dayton showed a quickness the Cubans could not match, and a tight U.S. zone kept them shooting from outside. Still, Cuba trailed only 24-20 midway in the first half as Angel Padron and Ruperto Herrera floated in several shots from the heavens. Then U.S. Center Robert Parish of Centenary, whose rebounding had been superlative, began to go to the basket with a will, slamming the ball in over Pedro Chappe, the wizened old master of Cuban basketball who had engineered the U.S. defeat in Cali four years ago. When Parish soared in from the foul line with a windmill dunk, the U.S. led, 33-22. In the second half the margin was widened to 18 points on short, twisting jumpers by Houston's Otis Birdsong, but play grew ragged. Cuba's Miguel Calderon hit three times, and suddenly it was 76-68 with four minutes to go. The crowd, up to then disdainfully mute, now screamed for a U.S. defeat. But again it was Parish, rising calmly above the frenzy, who dropped in a jumper, then a follow on a Birdsong shot, and it was 80-70. Passing deftly, the U.S. had no trouble protecting the lead. At the buzzer, when 100 gray-clad policemen raced in to ring the court, it was 84-78.

After basketball, it seemed only fitting that boxing, the climax of the Games, would also come down to a Cuba-U.S. meeting. But by the time heavyweight Michael Dokes had reached the finals against Olympic champion Teofilo Stevenson of Cuba, the 17-year-old from Akron was alone in his conviction that he would win.

In the semifinals, Dokes had outpointed Trevor Berbick of Jamaica, then watched as the 6'5", 225-pound Stevenson destroyed Jair de Campos of Brazil. His jabs nothing more than delicate pats on de Campos' forehead, as if he were daubing on the oil of the last rites, Stevenson carried his right hand cocked and motionless under his right eye. The second time he used it, de Campos was down for an eight count. A left knocked him down again, and the third time Stevenson used the right, the Brazilian was out, his head striking the canvas with a frightening crack, his mouthpiece spinning lazily into the crowd.

Stevenson is a man of easy informality. The one visible scar on his blunt face ruffles his left eyebrow, giving the erroneous impression that he is eternally puzzled. He was always visible at the Games, watching the track competition (he has run 100 meters in 11.2), or ambling about the village. So relaxed did he seem that it was curious to see that his fingernails were bitten to the quick. "No," he said sharply, "there is no chance of my turning professional. The money isn't important to me, or to Cuba. I am not a merchant. I am an athlete." Still, he respects the skills of Muhammad Ali and allowed that he would like to challenge him if the Olympic rules could be changed to permit such a fight without the loss of his amateur standing—an improbable circumstance. "I plan to box another 10 or 12 years," he said, "until another young Cuban comes along to take over."

The day after the semifinals, Stevenson was gliding through the cafeteria when he passed the seated Dokes, who raised a finger as if to beckon a waiter. "Hello, my man," Dokes said. Stevenson smiled benignly and strolled on.

Continue Story
1 2